HARRISBURG - The judge presiding over the investigation into alleged leaks by state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said Thursday that he would look into Kane's firing this week of a top aide who had testified against her.
In a brief interview, Judge William R. Carpenter declined to discuss his inquiry or possible sanctions, but made clear that an order he issued in the fall to protect witnesses in the case from retaliation or harassment had not expired.
"The protective order is still in place," he said.
Carpenter spoke a day after Kane fired James Barker, a longtime prosecutor and the chief deputy attorney general for appeals and legal services.
An office spokeswoman described Barker's ouster as part of a broader reorganization and said it had "absolutely nothing" to do with his testimony. Barker has said he was unaware of any restructuring and was not told why he was dismissed.
Kane has been unavailable for comment on the firing.
On Thursday, after widespread news reports on Barker's fate, her office released a statement explaining that Barker's firing was necessary "for efficiency and tighter controls amid media reports of cases allegedly before a sitting grand jury."
"While not known yet who is specifically responsible for those leaks, supervisory accountability falls to the head of the unit," the statement said. In his last position, Barker oversaw the office's three statewide grand juries.
The statement did not cite any specific leaks, and spokeswoman Carolyn Myers did not respond to requests for additional details.
In an interview Thursday, Barker said he was never responsible for investigating leaks. He said that his only responsibility was to report them and that he fulfilled that role.
The 53-year-old prosecutor said he was blindsided by his ouster and had not ruled out suing over the firing. But Barker has declined to discuss his testimony before the grand jury last year or say it led to his dismissal.
He was among several former or current top aides to Kane who testified last year before the grand jury, which recommended that Kane be charged with perjury, obstruction, contempt of court, and other crimes for releasing confidential information to a Philadelphia newspaper, allegedly to punish a political rival.
That case is now in the hands of Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, who is weighing whether to prosecute the attorney general.
Sources have told The Inquirer that the grand jury concluded that Kane released confidential documents to the Philadelphia Daily News related to a long-dormant investigation involving Philadelphia civil rights leader J. Whyatt Mondesire, who was not charged in the case.
Kane has maintained that any information she authorized to be released was not secret or protected. Her lawyers have also argued that she was not bound by grand jury secrecy rules in 2009 because she was not attorney general at the time.
Sources have told The Inquirer that Barker, a grand jury expert, rejected that view and testified to the grand jury that the entire office, including the attorney general, was bound by confidentiality regardless of when a jury met.
It is unclear how or when Carpenter, a Montgomery County Court judge, will proceed.
Legal observers say attorneys who violate a court order can typically be held in contempt by a judge. They said Carpenter could require Kane to appear at a hearing to explain the firing, or appoint a special prosecutor to look into whether the action was a crime.
Barker's firing follows an exodus of key staffers in Kane's office, including two top deputies, Philadelphia lawyers Adrian King and Linda Dale Hoffa, and chief of staff Blake Rutherford, who quit last week after less than four months on the job.
Kane has also fired or lost a succession of staff members who handled public communications. Myers this week became the latest to resign. She said she gave her two-week notice Monday.
She has been Kane's fifth spokeswoman, not counting two interim top communications aides.