Special prosecutor probes Pa. Attorney General's Office

Posted: September 01, 2014

A special prosecutor is investigating whether the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane leaked confidential grand jury material to a newspaper in a bid to strike back at former prosecutors in the office who had been critical of her, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The special prosecutor has issued several subpoenas to Kane's office and others to explore how secret records became public this year about a 2009 investigation by the Attorney General's Office involving Philadelphia political activist J. Whyatt Mondesire, the sources said.

Though there have been periodic inquiries into grand jury leaks in the past, this appears to be first time the state attorney general or top staffers in the office have come under scrutiny.

Reached for comment late Saturday afternoon about reports of the leak probe, J.J. Abbott, a Kane spokesman, referred those questions to Renee Martin, Kane's acting communications director. Martin did not return phone calls.

It is unclear who commissioned the investigation, nor was The Inquirer able to determine the special prosector's name. But typically, sources said, such a decision would need approval from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A person who violates grand jury secrecy rules may be found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to up to six months in prison.

The leak inquiry was prompted by a Philadelphia Daily News article in June that drew heavily upon a 2009 internal memo prepared as part of a grand jury investigation that summarized the status of the Mondesire probe.

The newspaper story questioned whether top prosecutors in the office at the time, including then-Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank G. Fina, had pursued the Mondesire probe aggressively.

Over the last year, Kane, a Democrat, has been locked in an increasingly bruising battle with Fina and other former prosecutors and investigators who worked under her Republican predecessors over how certain high-profile cases were handled.

Critics have faulted Kane for her decision to shut down a sting launched by Fina that sources and investigative documents say captured five Philadelphia Democratic officials taking cash payments or gifts.

The Daily News article based on the leak seemed to suggest Fina and other former state prosecutors had fallen short in pursuing a case against Mondesire.

Fina did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this article. In a previous interview, he adamantly denied any suggestion that he did not aggressively pursue the Mondesire investigation, as has the lead prosecutor who was assigned to that probe.

No charges were filed in that case. Mondesire, a longtime leader of the NAACP in Philadelphia, has denied any wrongdoing.

In a twist, the special prosecutor's leak investigation has intersected with a separate and seemingly unrelated legal fight involving many of the same combatants in another matter: the exchange of sexually explicit e-mails among former and current state officials.

The messages, shared on state computers and sometimes through government e-mail accounts, are said to have contained pornographic images, jokes, cartoons, and other private messages, according to people familiar with them.

Not all the recipients are known. By some accounts, some of the material was circulated among scores of officials, from homicide investigators in the Attorney General's Office to state prosecutors and other state officials, including top Pennsylvania jurists.

The Inquirer and other news organizations have filed Right-to-Know requests with the Attorney General's Office seeking information about those e-mails, but a judge has blocked the office from deciding whether they can be released.

The e-mails have become an issue in connection with the leak inquiry, with some Kane critics arguing that Kane's office is using the threat of their release as a way to silence criticism, sources told The Inquirer.

In an article published Saturday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the Attorney General's Office, in response to that newspaper's Right-to-Know request, had said a judicial stay barred the office from saying whether it could release the e-mails.

Martin, Kane's chief spokeswoman, told the Pittsburgh newspaper she could not reveal the name of the judge or the court that issued the stay.

That a judge has issued a temporary stay suggests that legal fight is ongoing.

The leak investigation by the special prosecutor was launched after a June 6 article in the Daily News that Kane was reviewing a 2009 grand jury investigation into the finances of Mondesire, former head of the NAACP Philadelphia chapter, and of one of his employees.

The article cited a 2009 memo written by then-Deputy Attorney General William Davis Jr. to Fina and then-Senior Deputy Attorney General E. Marc Costanzo. Among other things, the memo said investigators had "uncovered what appeared to be questionable spending of state money by Mondesire." The article also listed examples of the alleged questionable spending Davis had included in the memo.

The Daily News article said Kane wanted to find out what happened with the investigation. Mondesire said state prosecutors never interviewed him.

In an interview with The Inquirer this summer, Davis said it was false to suggest Fina had impeded the probe.

The Daily News article reported that a top Kane aide had in March interviewed an investigator with the Attorney General's Office who had worked on the Mondesire case. The Daily News obtained a tape of that interview. In it, the paper reported, the investigator said he had been taken off the case after he told Fina and Costanzo about his work.

Davis, in the interview with The Inquirer, said that the agent in question had been replaced and that the probe had continued. "It wasn't dropped," Davis said.

For Fina and other former prosecutors and investigators in the Attorney General's Office, and for Kane and her top command, the quarrel over the alleged grand jury leaks, the handling of the Mondesire case, and the sexually explicit e-mails is the latest skirmish in a war that dates to Kane's 2012 bid for office.

In that race, Kane sharply criticized Fina's leadership of the investigation into serial child sex abuser Jerry Sandusky. She suggested political consideration delayed the probe into the former assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University.

She also hired a former federal prosecutor to reinvestigate the Sandusky case. In a recent report, that ex-prosecutor said he found no evidence the probe had been delayed for political reasons but said the investigation might have moved more quickly.

In her first months in office, Kane also secretly shut down a probe Fina began that sources and investigative documents say caught five elected officials, all Philadelphia Democrats, on tape taking cash, money orders, or, in one case, a $2,000 bracelet.

After The Inquirer this year revealed Kane's decision to end the sting, she said the investigation had been carried out poorly and was possibly tainted by racial targeting. All five caught on tape are African American.

Fina vigorously defended the investigation. His current boss, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, has taken on the case.

In recent years, judges have approved a series of probes to get to the bottom of leaks, such as information that became public in news stories about the separate investigations into former casino operator Louis DeNaples and Sandusky.

Judge Barry Feudale jailed a former investigator with the Attorney General's Office for leaks related to an investigation into prison conditions in Lackawanna County.

Feudale jailed him for the maximum time permitted at the time for that form of contempt of court, 15 days. After Feudale complained vigorously that such a penalty was too mild, the possible maximum was increased to its current six months.


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

 717-787-5934

@AngelasInk

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