Last week, I tried to connect some dots in the sordid Porngate story that has ensnarled Attorney General Kathleen Kane and her nemesis Frank Fina in a seeming political death match. My point was that, yes, the attorney general very well may be politically incompetent and in over her head…and also the target of a cabal of sexist men throughout the state judiciary.
Well, two days later, the Inquirer broke a story that seemed to provide evidence of that thesis, though the paper curiously chose to ignore the self-evident conclusion. In fact, bafflingly, the Inquirer story, headlined “Kane’s Office Obtained Judge’s Private Emails,” seemed more concerned with how the emails came to light than providing a full accounting of what was in them.
Which is part of a shameful pattern throughout the “porngate” story. Time and again, we haven’t gotten the real story, the one that goes to the heart of what kind of a judicial system we actually have in this commonwealth. Despite the statewide embarrassment that is Kathleen Kane, at least we have her mess to thank for revealing the truth about the prosecutors and judges who have long been bonding over a racist, sexist, xenophobic and hateful email chain, which includes videos like this:
Media at its best ought to signal outrage over that. Instead, we get stories that focus on arcane legal minutiae—who leaked what to whom—instead of zeroing in on the true and disturbing transgressions that have come to light.
In the Inquirer story, writer Chris Palmer reported that Kane’s representative, Ken Smukler, had acquired 2013 email exchanges between Judge Barry Feudale and two Inquirer reporters, Craig McCoy and Angela Couloumbis, and had been trying to get two media outlets to write about them. Feudale had been the judge on the Sandusky grand jury; the lead prosecutor on that case had been the aforementioned Frank Fina. Feudale’s correspondence with the reporters had to do with the Supreme Court’s sealed order to remove him from grand jury service, a move Kane had lobbied for behind the scenes.
The story held out speculation that there had been some kind of a break-in, or hacking, of the Judge’s private emails. It went so far as to cite as a possible precedent the case of former CBS-3 anchor Larry Mendte, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to hacking into fellow anchor Alycia Lane’s computer and leaking personal information about her to local gossip columnists. This suggested storyline fit neatly with the narrative heretofore of Kathleen Kane as some sort of imbalanced Nixon-like character, authorizing break-ins and leaks.
Despite the statewide embarrassment that is Kathleen Kane, at least we have her mess to thank for revealing the truth about the prosecutors and judges who have long been bonding over a racist, sexist, xenophobic and hateful email chain.
But the Inquirer story didn’t explain why the contents of the email exchange with its own reporters might be germane to Kane’s defense of the charges against her. Remember, her defense is that she’s the victim of an old boys’ network of interests, because she has had in her possession damning information on many judges and prosecutors (and some U.S. attorneys) throughout the state: Their participation in that offensive chain of emails.
In fact, when Kane responded to the Inquirer story by releasing the Feudale emails in question, revealing just how they came into her possession, it became clear that the Inquirer’s characterization of them was startlingly incomplete. First, how did she get them? Far from authorizing a break-in, the answer was right on the email themselves. It turns out that when the judge corresponded with the Inquirer reporters, he then forwarded the exchanges to Fina at the prosecutor’s former—but not disabled—Office of the Attorney General email address. In other words, the lengthy story speculating on whether there had been some break-in or hacking of Feudale’s computer was not only wrong, but reporter Palmer should have surmised that prior to publishing just by looking at who Feudale sent the emails to.
Late in the article, when Palmer gets around to reporting the substance of Feudale’s emails to his newsroom colleagues, he leaves a misleading impression of the judge. “In the exchanges with reporters, Feudale shared some material generated during his dispute with Kane,” Palmer writes. “But he also rebuffed the reporters on other matters, saying he could not talk about certain issues because he was bound by grand jury secrecy…” Palmer even quotes Feudale to that effect: “‘Nice try, guys, but sorry,’” he wrote at one point, in declining to answer questions. ‘I am not willing to violate the law and my commitment to secrecy, even as a former grand jury judge.’”
But, once Kane released the email chain in question, Palmer’s reporting appeared mighty selective. He left out a telling exchange: Feudale’s offer to leak to the reporters the sealed Supreme Court order removing him from the grand jury: “My problem is that the application for a Writ was sealed (as are all Kings Bench matters) so I need both of your assurance it will only be used as background and you will not reveal me as the source of such.” This omission would seem to go beyond what we in journalism call “burying the lead.” This would be closer to ignoring the lead.
Let’s underscore what’s happening here, after all: Kane has been criminally charged for leaking grand jury information to the press. Here, a grand jury judge is seen leaking sealed Supreme Court documents to the press. Yet that is not the story. Instead, we get speculation about some nefarious ways this email exchange could have come to light—fair game, if the emails themselves hadn’t already provided the answer: Feudale sent them to Fina’s AG address.
By then, Fina was working in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, but what does it say that a judge was forwarding his correspondence with two reporters to a prosecutor who had had cases before him? Doesn’t that give some credence to Kane’s old boys’ network argument, as does Feudale’s heaping of lavish praise upon Fina (“brilliant mind, photographic memory, fierce but ethical advocate”) in those missives?
Countless insiders of our state judicial system bonded over the high-minded comedy of a jerk calling himself The Amazing Racist. Where’s the outrage over that?
On Friday night, the Legal Intelligencer followed the Inquirer’s lead and posted a story that was more about the leaking of the Feudale emails than their substance. Lizzy McLellan and Hank Greziak reported that Smukler had earlier tried to leak to them the story of the Feudale emails and then spent significant column inches raising questions not only about where Smukler got the emails, but whether the material he acquired—screen shots—might have been doctored. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Smukler for some 15 years and wrote about him here.) But again, the reporters would have known pre-publication—or should have known—whether what Smukler had shown them matched what the Attorney General released.
I’m mystified by the reporting of this story. Part of me wonders whether local media is protecting sources and thereby choosing sides. Another part suspects it’s just sloppiness; there’s a fog of war feel to the fast moving Kane/porngate scandal and it’s easy to get bogged down in the daily he said/she said instead of keeping in mind the bigger picture.
The danger here is that that’s what’s been lost. While we’re getting stories about phantom break-ins and erroneous speculation about doctored documents, we know that judges, prosecutors, and U.S. attorneys—men and women we rely on for their judgment—have for years been giggling together over emails that are racist, sexist, and hateful. Where’s the outrage over that? Turns out, the porngate moniker is a misnomer. Now that some of these emails are coming out, we can finally judge for ourselves. A newscast calling itself scrapple.tv has put some of the material together here.
But if you really want to viscerally feel why this story matters, all you need to watch is that video of a jerk who calls himself The Amazing Racist. One of his videos, in which he gets a group of undocumented Latinos in his truck under the false pretense of hiring them for the day only to drive them to the INS office, was sent through the Harrisburg insider email chain. Countless members of our state judicial system bonded over such high-minded comedy. There’s something gravely wrong with that…and it was once journalism’s highest calling to right such wrongs.
Header Photo: Flickr/Joe The Goat Farmer