Jeff Gelles: How Pa.'s attorney general works on consumer protection

Life is not all high-profile controversies for Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Her office also does everyday, small-scale watchdogging.
Life is not all high-profile controversies for Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Her office also does everyday, small-scale watchdogging. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: September 30, 2013

As they often do in a state with such raucous politics as Pennsylvania's, major controversies have dominated the headlines during Kathleen Kane's first year as attorney general, including some made more controversial by Kane's decision to wade into them.

Reviewing the Penn State molestation scandal. Prosecuting an ExxonMobil subsidiary in a Marcellus Shale spill. Refusing to defend the state's gay-marriage ban. Fighting the US Airways-American merger. And that's just a few.

But Pennsylvania's chief law enforcement officer also serves, much less prominently, as the state's chief consumer-protection officer - a prime example of how government serves a nuts-and-bolts function that, if all goes well, most of us will never notice.

Kane is the first Democrat and first woman to be elected Pennsylvania's attorney general, an appointive position until the 1980s. She is also an ex-district attorney who stressed her prosecutorial chops as she ran for the office.

So where does consumer protection fit into all these complex crosscurrents? During an interview last week, Kane said she sees it as an essential function to state residents because it "really gets into their homes every single day." She drew a direct line from some of her office's biggest cases to its quieter role as marketplace cop.

The spill prosecution "had nothing to do with policy on shale or fracking," Kane said. "It's about keeping an even playing field. Everybody has to follow the laws of Pennsylvania. If you break them, it doesn't matter where you're from or who you are, we have to enforce them."

Kane also uses the playing-field metaphor to explain why vigorous consumer-protection enforcement protects upstanding businesses, not just their customers.

"If you have a good company and you're following all the rules of the commonwealth, and you're competing against a company that isn't and that's cutting corners, then you are not on a level playing field, and your business is going to be hurt," she said.

Protecting a competitive playing field - this time, to directly help consumers - was also behind her decision to join the antitrust case against US Airways' merger with American Airlines, she said.

"When these mergers occur, prices go up, access goes down, and ancillary fees - baggage fees, change fees, standby fees - all go through the roof," Kane said. "And the people who get hurt in these mergers are the consumers."

The Attorney General's Office fields tens of thousands of consumer calls each year, including 80,000 so far this year to its Bureau of Consumer Protection hotline (1-800-441-2555). Other lines take calls on issues such as health care and elder abuse, and thousands of calls go directly to her office's front desk.

In every case, she said, the priority is helping to solve problems as swiftly as possible - say, by making contact with a bank blocking a short sale, or by informally mediating a dispute. "We try to cut through some of the red tape, to make sure either the harm is alleviated or the problem is solved," she said.

But Kane said the 76 staffers in the consumer-protection unit can also help identify systemic problems that merit investigation.

"We'll also start looking for a number of complaints filed against that same business, and watch for a pattern. And we'll also take the 30,000-foot view of looking at wide-scale industry abuse," she said.

Kane also has made improved consumer education a priority, calling it a wedge against scammers such as those who target elderly consumers because they're likely to be less tech-savvy and more trusting, and to have amassed more wealth.

And she is pushing for changes to state statutes to aid consumer protection, including enactment of a whistle-blower law that would help insiders step forward if they know about deceptive practices.

Kane also is ready to step into the breach created by recent court rulings limiting class actions if, for instance, she hears of trickery that takes a little money from a lot of consumers.

"Who's going to sit on the phone for two hours with a company trying to get a $4 charge off their bill? But when you times that by millions, that's a lot of money," Kane said. "It's wide-scale fraud."


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

www.inquirer.com/consumer

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