Back in 2015—before #MeToo and the election of Donald Trump—the state was scintillated by the scandal known as Porngate. The name came from a public revelation that senior law enforcement officials and members of the state judiciary had been swapping loads of sexually explicit content on government time, using government emails, along with memes that were overtly racist, sexist and homophobic. But if you ask a handful of Philadelphians on the street today what the hoopla was all about, at best you’d receive a handful of convoluted responses that invariably mention Kathleen Kane.
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The first woman to be elected attorney general of Pennsylvania, Kane is the enduring face of Porngate. She was not only the highest-ranking elected official involved in the scandal, but also the only one sent to jail. (After serving less than a year behind bars, Kane was released this summer.) It was a scandal that brought down numerous political careers and encompassed a wide range of corruption, little of which had to do with porn and none of which was erotic. But the name Porngate stuck. It gave credence to the old adage that “sex sells” in the media, which applied in this case not only to the emails but also the coverage of Kane, whose physical attributes became the fascination of so many commentators online.
However, as time goes on, Porngate is a misnomer.
Yes, government officials swapped nude images with disturbing frequency, and yes, those exchanges ultimately resulted in Kane’s demise, along with others. But the email behavior constituted something worse. The chunk of emails released to the public showed how a powerful cohort, most of them white men, who viewed the objectification of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community as totally normal and fair game as the butt end of a joke.
In retrospect, what Kane exposed was actually an abusive environment behind closed doors that had less to do with sexual exploitation and more to do with an antiquated notion of immunity that individuals in power carried with them until men like Harvey Weinstein began to fall.
What it wasn’t really about was porn. Rarely did sexual deviancy appear to be the primary motive. It was about power, how it’s wielded, the struggle to keep it, and the perils of trying to wrest it free. It was also about transparency: We learned, at least in part, about our judiciary, and how state judges, attorneys and investigators think about the people they are judging and investigating. It was not pretty.
Most of the controversial email content, and who sent it, was never shown to the public. The State Supreme Court eventually released some of them, but only the ones pertaining to Kane’s subsequent corruption trial. So we never got a chance to fully reckon with those emails, because Kane—who, lest I remind you, was responsible for investigating the pornographic material, not sending it—and her own corruption trial wound up absorbing so much of the public’s attention. This was also because of the selective transparency shown by the Commonwealth throughout Porngate. This vein of selective transparency is particularly relevant today because one of those email-senders, a judge of the Common Pleas Court named Christylee Peck, is on the ballot in November; we know this because of an unredacted version of the report obtained by The Citizen—not because we, as voters, were told.
According to the unredacted version of the Gansler Report obtained by The Citizen, Peck sent “fewer than 10” offensive emails from her government account. What were those emails? Were they actually offensive? We don’t know because the AG’s office hasn’t released them, and she has not offered them up for scrutiny. Peck hasn’t returned calls seeking comment, but a source close to her told The Citizen that she never received any punishment from the Judicial Conduct Board or otherwise and the emails are at least eight years old.
Let’s take a step back for a moment, because Porngate has a complicated timeline. It’s important to remember that Kane never went fishing for a trove of offensive emails, at least not initially. She caught wind of what was going on only when a sampling of these emails turned up in a separate internal investigation related to the state’s prosecution of Jerry Sandusky. And when those initial emails looked damaging to some of her critics within the AG’s office, she might have had a little extra incentive to pursue it. In 2015, Kane authorized a taxpayer-funded investigation (to the tune of more than $1 million) into just how deep the rabbit hole went.
Kane hired the private-sector firm of former Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler to conduct an independent investigation into what she referred to as a “good ol’ boys network.” After manually looking over more than 145,000 state emails identified by an algorithm that picked up on things like red-flag words and nudity, Gansler turned over a report to the AG’s office in August 2016, just days after Kane resigned from office. Gansler laid out several recommendations—some of which have been enacted in state government over the subsequent years—and the 50-page report named names. But the interim AGs who filled Kane’s shoes—first Bruce Castor and then Bruce Beemer—both fought its release to the public.
Some of those named, like state Supreme Court justices Seamus McCaffrey and Michael Eakin, had already resigned by the time Gansler’s report had been turned over to the AG’s office. Their names came out over the course of investigations published by The Daily News and The Morning Call. Some of the lower-ranking state officials were given jobs elsewhere. But most of the names were never released to the public because interim AG and current Inspector General of Pennsylvania Bruce Beemer redacted the version of the Gansler report that eventually was released to the public in November, 2016.
What were Common Pleas Court Judge Christylee Peck’s emails? Were they actually offensive? We don’t know because the AG’s office hasn’t released them, and she has not offered them up for scrutiny.
Although Kane and Beemer (once her deputy) ended up on opposite sides of Porngate, their actions spoke similarly in at least one regard: Both employed a heavy dose of selective transparency, a common theme of Porngate. Kane leaked grand jury reports to the press while fighting other disclosures, which resulted in jail time. Beemer and others tried to withhold the names of those involved from the public.
“The question about whether or not people’s names should come out is different than whether or not it is fair for them in the circumstances under which this report was created,” Beemer said in 2016. Beemer stopped short of calling the investigation a witch hunt, but criticized Gansler’s methodology and what he saw as an overly broad scope, resulting in too much email content in the report, and hence, the necessity for redactions. “The circumstances under which this report was created create enormous problems…I didn’t want the next attorney general to spend the next several years dealing with lawsuits and litigation, and detract from everything else we had to do.”
Perhaps he was right to do so. But a number of those individuals who he was in theory protecting, the high-profile members of the state judiciary whose names he felt the need to redact, themselves now support the release of the contents of the Gansler report.
“I have nothing to hide. My emails, I don’t remember how many there were [in the report], maybe four? Five?” says Judge Dennis Reinaker of Lancaster County one of the judges named in the Gansler report whose identity had previously been removed. “One was a picture of, it was like a child and they were fully clothed but the way they were standing it looked like they were urinating, I think, into a fountain, and there was some funny caption with it, and it was just … nothing.”
When reached by The Citizen, two out of the three lower-court judges whose emails got caught up in the Gansler dragnet say they’re more than willing to share their so-called “offensive” emails with us and in turn with the public. They even provided copies of emails they say were collected and viewed by Gansler. One of those judges, Judge Kim Eaton of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, chalked up her correspondence as “all innocuous and it was stuff I’d emailed my husband. I’m Irish and blonde and it amounted to blonde-Irish jokes,” Eaton says. She shared those emails with The Citizen, as did Reinaker. Another one of her emails contained a Kanye West/Patrick Swayze meme that ended up in the report because it referenced Swayze’s death shortly after the actor’s passing. “So, yeah, I have nothing to hide,” Eaton says.
In all, five judges are named. Eakin and McCaffery are now gone. Reinaker and Eaton are in favor of releasing their old emails. The exception is Christylee Peck. Over several months, multiple attempts by The Citizen to reach Peck and her campaign staff for comment were unanswered for this story, leaving us to wonder if her emails were similarly vanilla. (The unredacted version also includes a smattering of individuals working in district attorneys offices in Pennsylvania and in administrative positions in other state departments, some of whom have since left state government.)
“Due to ongoing litigation remaining from the Kane administration, emails associated with the report are subject to several court orders restricting the Office from releasing them to the public at this time,” says Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for current AG Josh Shapiro. Rhoads did not clarify what that litigation is.
Yes, government officials swapped nude images with disturbing frequency. But the email behavior constituted something worse. The chunk of emails released to the public showed how a powerful cohort, most of them white men, who viewed the objectification of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community as totally normal and fair game as the butt end of a joke.
In other visible instances, Shapiro has championed the unredacted release of controversial reports, such as the one stemming from Pennsylvania’s clergy sex abuse scandal. He doesn’t see an equivalency here. “The two are incomparable. No criminal activity was alleged in the Gansler report and the redaction decisions were made by the prior Administration, for the reasons expressed at that time,” Rhoads wrote in a statement. “The Clergy Abuse Report detailed significant criminal activity. Twenty-three grand jurors combed over thousands of documents and heard hundreds of hours of testimony that resulted in our Clergy Abuse Report.”
What we do know is that Gansler’s recommendations seem to have been taken to heart. The AG’s office implemented email-monitoring software, just as Gansler recommended, and the Judicial Conduct Board says that it’s considering an online portal to make reporting of unethical behavior of judges easier.
Peck, meanwhile, remains a recommended candidate for Superior Court judge according to the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Asked whether the revelation of Peck’s name in the Gansler report—and her lack of willingness to share those emails—would change that recommendation, The Citizen received a single comment, from Heidi Masano, the chair of the Judicial Evaluation Commission: “The PBA Judicial Evaluation Commission issues a rating and a descriptive paragraph for each candidate seeking to fill a vacancy on the appellate courts who completes the JEC evaluation process. It does not publicly comment about an individual candidate beyond the rating and the descriptive comments meant to help the public understand the basis for the JEC’s rating.”
As it unfolded in real time, Porngate was often portrayed as a product of Kane acting in vengeance against political rivals in her own office. That was undoubtedly true, and probably merited stiff punishment. But the framing would have been different had the Porngate saga played out a few years later, during #MeToo. It’s hard to think the headlines would have been so blindingly entranced on Kane. There might have been more public pressure applied to releasing all those emails, and if they were problematic, the names of individuals who sent them. In retrospect, what Kane exposed was actually an abusive environment behind closed doors that had less to do with sexual exploitation and more to do with an antiquated notion of immunity that individuals in power carried with them until men like Harvey Weinstein began to fall.
Additional Reporting by Steve Volk.