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AG Kane slams appointment of mediator in Porngate case

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane lambasted a judicial panel Sunday for naming a well-connected lawyer to mediate Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin's Porngate case, calling it a step to "sweep his hate-filled emails under the rug."

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane lambasted a judicial panel Sunday for naming a well-connected lawyer to mediate Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin's Porngate case, calling it a step to "sweep his hate-filled emails under the rug."

Kane was reacting to the Court of Judicial Conduct's decision to name prominent Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague to serve as a mediator in the case against Eakin, who has been awaiting a public disciplinary hearing for exchanging salacious, misogynistic, and racially offensive emails.

Kane characterized the appointment as "disciplinary judges, appointed by the governor and the Supreme Court, hiring private lawyers to cut side deals with a disgraced justice in order to sweep his hate-filled emails under the rug."

Kane, a Democrat, is awaiting a criminal trial scheduled for August on charges of perjury, official oppression and obstruction. The Supreme Court has suspended her law license because of her arrest, prompting Republicans in the state Senate to propose ousting her from office.

In her statement Sunday, Kane vowed to "continue to call out this despicable behavior no matter how hell-bent they are to remove me from my independently elected office."

The email scandal already has already has forced one justice, Seamus P. McCaffery, to retire from the high court.

He quit in late 2014 after the Supreme Court revealed that he had exchanged 234 messages containing more than 1,500 sexually explicit photos or videos. His email became public after Kane discovered that he had exchanged messages with recipients on her staff using state computers.

Late last year, shortly after she was arraigned on a criminal charge, Kane leveled an accusation against Justice Eakin. She said her technicians had recovered a series of offensive emails that he, too, had sent or received.

Eakin has apologized for emails, but said they did not warrant his removal from the court. If found guilty of ethical misconduct, Eakins could face penalties ranging from a private censure to removal from the court and loss of his pension.

The Court of Judicial Discipline made no public announcement of its decision to bring in Sprague. It confirmed his role Friday in response to questions from The Inquirer.

The court said it would not take part in any mediation discussions.

Sprague could not be reached for comment Sunday. He declined comment Friday when contacted by The Inquirer.

His selection has been questioned by some legal experts and court reform advocates.

Lynn A. Marks, executive director of the non-partisan Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said Sunday that the quiet selection of Sprague late last month could damage the public's view of the courts.

"People need to believe what is going on is an open and transparent process," she said.

She said Sprague faced numerous conflicts of interest in taking on the unpaid mediation role.

"There's got to be someone who doesn't have a background riddle with conflicts," she said.

Among the issues she cited was that Sprague had served as an attorney for Kane. He represented her briefly in early 2014, after The Inquirer published a story reporting that she had secretly shut an undercover probe.

Sprague appeared with her at a meeting with The Inquirer's board, instructed her to remain silent, and told the newspaper he might bring a defamation action.

On Sunday, Eakin's attorney, William C. Costopoulos, strongly praised Sprague and said Eakin was satisfied with the judicial court'ss action.

Costopoulos declined to discuss how Sprague was selected. He would not say who contacted Eakin's defense team about the selection.

He dismissed any suggestions that Sprague's previous role as Kane's lawyer posed a conflict.

"His representation was totally unrelated" to the email scandal, he said.

In fact, Costopoulos said, that past representation may speak well for the tribunal's selection of Sprague. He said it rebutted any notion that the tribunal "was picking someone hostile to Kane."

Costopoulos also acknowledged that Sprague has appeared before Eakin and other justices in past court cases. But he said Sprague's job representing clients before the Supreme Court "may lend some insight as a mediator."

Costopoulos compared Sprague's appointment with the common practice in criminal cases of prosecutors and defense attorneys negotiating plea deals, which are later approved by judges.

But Costopoulos conceded that judges in criminal cases do not appoint mediators to arrange such deals.

In a flurry of statements to The Inquirer on Sunday, four members of the state high court, including Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, said they had no advance knowledge of Sprague's appointment of the Court of Judical Conduct.

"I had no knowledge of it whatsoever," said Justice David N. Wecht, responding to emails the Inquirer sent Sunday to Eakins's six colleagues.

Justices Max Baer and Debra McCloskey Todd also said they were unaware of the appointment.