HARRISBURG, Pa.—Both candidates for Pennsylvania attorney general have family ties that could pose a conflict of interests for the one who is elected as the state's next chief legal officer.

Republican David Freed may have to contend with an ongoing investigation by the attorney general's office into actions by the board of the Hershey Trust Co., which was chaired for years by Freed's father-in-law until he stepped down last year.

Democratic Kathleen Kane's husband is an executive and co-owner of his family's Scranton-based trucking and warehousing company, Kane is Able Inc., which holds a multimillion-dollar state contract for the storage and distribution of liquor and wine across the state's central region.

Experts in legal ethics say conflicts between lawyers' professional responsibilities and their personal interests are not uncommon, but they cannot be ignored when they crop up.

"None of us live in a vacuum. We all have families. We all have businesses," said Philadelphia lawyer Timothy W. Callahan, who serves on the state bar's Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility Committee.

Lawyers generally cannot represent a client if a concurrent conflict of interest exists, says the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, an ethical roadmap adopted by the state Supreme Court. That includes situations in which there is "a significant risk" that representation of a client "will be materially limited by ... a personal interest of the lawyer."

Freed, 41, the Cumberland County district attorney, says he would turn over the Hershey Trust investigation to an independent special prosecutor if he's elected and the probe is still active.

"It's a conversation with yourself: Do I believe that my relationship with a party would cause me to essentially not do the right thing for the right reason?" he said.

"An elected official also has to be concerned about the appearance of impropriety" even if none exists, said Freed, who won a second four-year term last year. He was unopposed for the GOP nomination for attorney general.

The attorney general's office possesses broad authority to regulate charitable trusts.

In 2010, it launched the non-criminal probe of the Hershey Trust Co.—which oversees the trust fund of the Milton Hershey School for disadvantaged children and controls a majority stake in The Hershey Co. candy maker—amid questions about the trust's purchase of a financially troubled golf course.

The multibillion-dollar trust's board was chaired from 2006 through last year by LeRoy Zimmerman, Freed's wife's father, who served two terms as Pennsylvania's first elected attorney general in the 1980s. Zimmerman has said he is confident that the trust acted appropriately.

Kane, a former Lackawanna County prosecutor who won a competitive statewide primary in her first election campaign, said she would refer any legal matters involving Kane is Able Inc. to the governor's general counsel for assignment to an outside special prosecutor.

The company "has never been in trouble and I don't expect them to get into any trouble in the future," she said. "But if they do, I won't have any problem referring the case to general counsel."

Kane, 45, was still in law school when the company whose name she now shares landed its first contract with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in 1990. It has maintained that business through competitive bidding on three successive contracts, the PLCB said.

The current contract—covering more than 200 state stores in eastern Pennsylvania outside of the Philadelphia region, taking in Wilkes-Barre, Williamsport, State College, Chambersburg, Lancaster and Allentown—was worth $12.8 million last year, according to the state treasurer's office. It runs through May 2014, more than a year after the next attorney general takes office.

Kane is not involved in her husband's company. While Chris Kane's job provides family income, the company's status as a major state contractor by itself poses no immediate conflict. That could change, however, in the event of criminal allegations or a lawsuit that pits the company against the state.

"You don't have a conflict until you do," said Robert H. Davis Jr., a Harrisburg lawyer who specializes in ethics law and teaches professional responsibility at Widener University Law School.

Asked whether she considers the Hershey Trust investigation fair game as a campaign issue, Kane replied, "It would only be fair game if Dave was the attorney general and the question was 'Would you investigate your father-in-law?'"

Asked the same question about Kane's situation, Freed said, "It's too soon to say."