Pennsylvania high court defers email probe to ethics panel

Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Monday it was deferring action on explicit emails involving one of its justices to the Judicial Conduct Board, which is currently investigating.

The court issued a statement that said it was taking that approach based on the recommendation of a law firm it hired to review the email scandal involving Justice Michael Eakin. The law firm said Eakin sent emails that included one depicting a topless woman and others with "purported jokes and banter that are offensive."

"We consider some of the materials that Justice Eakin sent and many that he received to be of serious concern," according to the report by the Del Sole Cavanaugh Stroyd law firm, and signed by former state Superior Court Judge Joseph Del Sole.

The law firm said the Judicial Conduct Board has special expertise in applying state court rules and has the authority to investigate beyond the emails themselves.

The firm was hired a month ago, after Attorney General Kathleen Kane submitted to the court and state ethics agencies 955 emails that she thought should be reviewed. She said Eakin had received racially offensive messages and misogynistic pornography through a private email account under a pseudonym.

On Monday, the law firm said Eakin was the sender of 157 of the emails.

Kane previously made public about three dozen of the emails or email exchanges from her agency's servers that involve Eakin, including nude photos and videos of woman, raunchy themes and juvenile humor. In most of those cases, Eakin was the recipient rather than the sender.

The state's Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct, has been undertaking a parallel investigation. A call seeking comment from its chief counsel, Bob Graci, was not returned Monday morning.

Eakin's lawyer, his wife Heidi Eakin, said they agreed with the conclusion of the report. But she also said some of those conclusions lacked context, because the report's authors had refused to interview her husband and did not give him a chance to respond to the conclusions.

It's the second time in a year that Eakin's emails have been the subject of official investigations. Last year, the Judicial Conduct Board cleared the 66-year-old former county prosecutor after Eakin himself alerted the board to what he said was a threat from a fellow justice, Seamus McCaffery.

McCaffery was involved in an exchange of emails with state prosecutors and others that became known to Kane during an internal review of how her office handled the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse investigation under her predecessors in office.

McCaffery abruptly retired, and dozens of others associated with the attorney general's office have been fired, were compelled to resign or were otherwise disciplined as a result of the email scandal.

Last month, Eakin issued a statement apologizing for what he described as "insensitive" content in his "John Smith" account, and said it was out of character for him.

Kane has said the emails could run afoul of rules that require judges to behave in ways that promote public confidence in the judiciary, and not in ways that would appear to undermine their independence, integrity and impartiality.

Kane currently awaits trial on charges she leaked secret grand jury material to a newspaper and lied to cover it up, charges she denies. The Supreme Court, including Eakin, voted in September to place her law license on temporary, indefinite suspension, which took effect about two weeks ago.

Eakin, a Republican, was first elected to the high court in 2001, after serving as district attorney in Cumberland County.

His private emails were discovered on the servers of the attorney general's office because he had exchanged them with some of the office's employees.

On Oct. 1, Kane alleged even wider involvement in the scandal, claiming the exchange of pornographic emails also included federal prosecutors, attorneys general, district attorneys and public defenders. She has not named any participants.