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Kane case leaves activists clamoring for change

TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER
Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice (via AP)
  • Attorney General Kathleen Kane was recently convicted of perjury and other charges.
  • Kane used more than $300,000 of campaign funds for her legal defense.
  • Activists want to revamp election law to make that kind of activity illegal.

Political activists want state legislators to revamp election law and forbid elected officials from using campaign funds to defend themselves against criminal charges in light of former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s case.

Kane, 50, of Waverly Township, was convicted Aug. 15 of perjury and several other offenses for leaking grand jury documents and lying about her actions.

Former Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane was recently convicted perjury and other offenses.

She spent more than $300,000 of campaign funds last year to defend herself against the charges, records show.

She is among several public officials who tapped political donations to fend off criminal charges in recent years. It has to stop, said several government watchdogs.

“This is a clear cut case of theft by deception,” said Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital, a taxpayer advocacy group. “You have an elected official who raised funds to enforce laws, not break them. People who contributed had no idea they’d be underwriting a legal defense fund.”

Several years ago former state Sen. Robert Mellow of Blakely spent more than $800,000 defending himself against state and federal charges.

Other politicians who defended themselves with campaign contributions in recent years include former state Sen. Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia and former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie of Pittsburgh, according to media reports.

They did so thanks to the vague wording of the state’s election law, which allows candidates to use campaign funds in any manner as long as it’s “for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause — another taxpayer advocacy group.

County court judges have liberally interpreted that clause to include the defense of criminal charges. No state appellate court has addressed the issue to provide a definitive answer.

“It’s been allowed and we think that’s an improper ruling,” Kauffman said. “I don’t think that is a proper interpretation of election law.”

Kauffman said some legal fees could be legitimate campaign expenses, such as defending a challenge to signatures on a nominating petition. Criminal charges clearly are a personal matter and should not be allowed, he said.

In February, Gene Stilp of Harrisburg, a political activist and outspoken critic of Kane, filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of State asking it to determine if her defense fees were legitimate campaign expenses. He has not heard anything from the department regarding the status of his request as of Monday, he said.

“This is a blatant case that has nothing to do with an election,” Stilp said. “Hopefully, the state department will look at this.”

Spokeswoman Wanda Murren said the department does not comment on any investigations.

Stilp said he’s hopeful Kane’s case will act as the catalyst that prompts legislators to change the law.

EDITORIAL: Kathleen Kane deserves to serve prison time

Kauffman said a wide-ranging campaign finance bill now pending before the state Senate addresses the issue. Senate Bill 11 does not specifically outlaw the use of donations for criminal defense, but it does better define what constitutes “personal use” of funds. It was referred to the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee in May, but no action has been taken on it.

Kauffman and Epstein said they’re not optimistic the bill will pass because legislators don’t want restrictions on how they spend contributions.

“When a public official raises money, they almost have carte blanche to spend it any way they want,” Epstein said. “I don’t want to hold out the illusion to the public that this legislature will do anything to make the process more open, transparent and accountable.”