Deputies to testify before Senate panel on AG Kane's status

Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Kathleen Kane
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane departs after her preliminary hearing Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, at the Montgomery County courthouse in Norristown, Pa.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

HARRISBURG, PA. -- A state Senate committee that could recommend whether to remove Attorney General Kathleen Kane from office said Tuesday it will hear from four top deputies who warned her against taking a lead role in decision-making now that the Supreme Court has suspended her law license.

Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, chairman of the Special Committee on Senate Address, said Kane's second-in-command and the lawyers who supervise the agency's civil, criminal and public protection sections would appear in a Capitol hearing room on Wednesday afternoon.

The announcement followed commentary from legal ethics experts about what Kane can and can't do as a lawyer under temporary, indefinite suspension and how her status may be affecting work inside the massive agency.

The state Supreme Court voted to suspend Kane's law license in September after she was charged with leaking secret grand jury material to a newspaper last year and lying about, charges she is fighting vigorously.

The high court specifically did not remove the first-term Democrat from office, leaving Kane at the head of the 835-employee agency.

Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said she had not been informed ahead of the announcement that her top aides intended to speak to the committee.

"I don't think she's angry," Ardo said. "Certainly we'll have some interest in what they may say."

On Monday, the committee released a letter from the four deputies to Kane dated Oct. 22, the day before the suspension was to take effect. They warned her she needed to make more changes while under suspension to avoid serious problems and said First Deputy Bruce Beemer should be making decisions about whether to bring cases and charges, whether to offer plea deals and how to handle grand juries. Her spokesman has said she complied with what they demanded.

On Tuesday, Bob Davis Jr., a Harrisburg lawyer who handles legal discipline cases and teaches ethics at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, told senators there was only so much the committee can draw from the rules that guide lawyer behavior because they "do not apply smoothly to the situation you now face."

He said the committee should assemble a full list of the core duties of the attorney general.

"As far as whether or not she can serve, that's your question," he said. "I wish we could be more help."

Beth L. Weisser, a Philadelphia attorney who represents lawyers in legal disciplinary proceedings, said she advises clients under suspension that they have to make their status clear in public communications. That applies to the use of letterhead, websites, business cards and even LinkedIn profiles, she said, calling it "problematic" that Kane continues to use letterhead as well as the title of attorney general.

Weisser said the 1980 Commonwealth Attorneys Act requires certain duties of the attorney general, while court rules prohibit a variety of acts by lawyers under suspension.

"I just think there's a fundamental inability to marry those concepts," Weisser told the committee.

The experts said suspended lawyers who want to do law-related work have to comply with a set of rules, including being under the supervision of another, fully licensed lawyer. It's not clear what Kane has done in that regard.

Kane has argued that the constitutional provision under consideration, which involves the governor and requires two-thirds approval by the Senate, is improper.

She believes the only legal way lawmakers can remove her is through a different constitutional section that describes impeachment by the House and trial in the Senate.

Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, asked the experts if they thought impeachment was more proper.

"With all due respect, senator, I'm not going to go there," said Saint Vincent College professor Bruce Antkowiak. "That's why they pay you the big money."