Former Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has been appointed a special prosecutor in a lurid Pennsylvania corruption case involving charges that high officials exchanged pornographic and racist emails through their state accounts.
Gansler, an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor last year, was recruited for the job by embattled Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
Kane, a Democrat, was charged with perjury in January for allegedly leaking grand jury information to a reporter in an effort to embarrass a political foe and then lying about it under oath. Her law license was suspended in September, but she has refused to resign her office.
The case has been dubbed "Porngate" by the Pennsylvania media.
Gansler's appointment comes a week after a special committee of the Republican-led Pennsylvania State Senate recommended that the full body vote on whether Kane be removed from office. She has argued that the Senate's move is unconstitutional because it bypasses impeachment by the Pennsylvania House, but Senate leaders contend they are using another legal path for removing a top official.
Since leaving office, Gansler has worked for the Washington law firm BuckleySandler. He said at a news conference Tuesday in Philadelphia that the firm would sign a contract with the Pennsylvania attorney general's office to provide legal services. Gansler said he will lead a five-lawyer team from the firm to conduct the investigation.
Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor, said the Pennsylvania investigation is precisely the type of case that cries out for a special prosecutor.
"This scandal has reached a point where a regular prosecutor couldn't handle it and would lack credibility," said Tiefer, who served as special deputy chief counsel to the U.S. House committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
But the ink was hardly dry on the appointment papers before Kane's critics began to criticize her choice of Gansler, who served two terms as Maryland's top lawyer before leaving office after the 2014 election.
"We have an attorney general who is no longer licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania hire a special prosecutor who is not licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania and who has been sanctioned by the courts in Maryland and whose past behavior seems to have included a number of bad judgments," said Dennis Roddy, who served as a special assistant in the Republican administration of former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
Roddy, now a columnist for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, pointed to Gansler's censure by the Maryland Court of Appeals for statements he made outside court while Montgomery County state's attorney and to The Baltimore Sun's disclosure that he had been photographed at a party in Delaware where teenagers said many of them had been drinking. Gansler has admitted poor judgment in the party incident but has portrayed the court sanction as proof of his independence.
Kane was elected in 2012, becoming the first woman and first Democrat to hold that job since it was made an elected office in 1980.
After becoming attorney general, Kane said she discovered that employees in the office had exchanged pornography and racist and otherwise offensive material via email with judges, prosecutors and others. She has insisted that the charges against her were manufactured by Republicans in an effort to cover up the alleged scandal.
Gansler said in an interview that he will not investigate the actions that led to Kane's indictment but will concentrate on sifting through the tens of thousands of emails at the heart of her charges,
Kane's formal charge to Gansler in his role as special deputy attorney general is to investigate "improper disclosure of criminal investigative or grand jury matters and the viewing or transmission of sexually explicit, racially or otherwise discriminatory or illegal materials" by current or former employees of the attorney general's office, judges or other public officials. It also authorizes him to look into "other related acts that may include evidence of improper collusion, lack of impartiality and independence, or obstruction of court proceedings or other government functions."
The email scandal has already led to the resignation of several Pennsylvania officials, including a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Gansler acknowledged that some have questioned whether Kane has the authority to appoint an independent counsel as a result of the suspension of her law license by the state Supreme Court. Kane has asserted that she retains the power to make such appointments as a matter of policymaking, and Gansler said he agrees.
But Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, said that the first time Gansler tries to exercise prosecutorial authority, he can expect a court challenge questioning whether Kane — having no law license — had the power to delegate responsibility to him.
"I'm sure he's aware of that," Ledewitz said.
As special prosecutor, Gansler said he has been given the authority to decide whether to charge individuals with crimes. He said that if he brings any cases, he will follow them through to trial. If his team finds evidence of ethical violations by judges, Gansler said, he would refer those matters to the state's Judicial Conduct Board.
Gansler, 53, acknowledged that none of the members of his firm's legal team hold Pennsylvania law licenses.
"We want to be as independent from the Pennsylvania bar and judiciary as possible," he said.
Tiefer rejected the contention that Gansler needs a Pennsylvania law license.
"Whatever tiny amount of time and energy it takes Gansler to brush up on Pennsylvania law, it is exceeded 50 times over by the benefit of bringing in someone from out of state," Tiefer said.
Gansler, who has not ruled out a future try for elected office, said he's well qualified for the job because he has a track record of prosecuting political corruption cases.
"Complicated prosecutions and complicated cases are what I love to do," Gansler said. "It'll be an interesting investigation. It's right up my alley."