HARRISBURG, Pa. -- First it was a criminal case. Then it enveloped a university athletic program. Now the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal has infiltrated the realm of politics.
Pennsylvania's new attorney general is set to name a special prosecutor in the coming days to investigate Gov. Tom Corbett's handling of the case, specifically why nearly three years elapsed before criminal charges were brought.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat elected in November, confirmed her plans in an interview here. She suggested that when he was attorney general Mr. Corbett, a Republican, slow-walked the investigation of a longtime football coach at the center of the scandal while campaigning for governor.
Mr. Corbett, who was elected in 2010, has flatly rejected the suggestion that he delayed the case.
But polls show that a majority of Pennsylvania voters are critical of his handling of the investigation, and Ms. Kane's inquiry is likely to cast a shadow over his bid for a second term in 2014.
Ms. Kane was elected by the largest margin of any candidate on the state ballot last November -- even President Obama -- and said she had no interest in challenging Mr. Corbett for governor in two years. But other members of her party acknowledged that there is a risk if her investigation becomes seen as a vendetta.
"Clearly, this is a very delicate issue on the political side," said Jay Costa, the Democratic minority leader in the State Senate. "If she creates an atmosphere that this is a witch hunt or whatever and she has already reached a conclusion, that's not good."
Mr. Corbett, 63, recently returned to the Penn State matter, an unhealed wound for many Pennsylvanians even after the conviction last year of the former coach, Jerry Sandusky, for molesting eight boys. In early January, the governor brought a lawsuit to lift the stiff penalties imposed on Penn State by the National Collegiate Athletic Association as a result of the episode.
The suit seeks to rescind a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on postseason football games and the forfeit of 112 Penn State football victories over a dozen years. It was filed six months after Mr. Corbett called on Pennsylvanians to accept the punishment, and it was widely viewed as calculated to win support from the legions of alumni who bleed Penn State blue and white.
Many Pennsylvania newspaper editorial boards concluded that the action was transparently political.
Mr. Corbett's approval ratings are historically low for a first-term governor of his state. "I don't think there's any doubt" that Mr. Corbett's handling of the case is "a contributing factor in his poor job performance" in polls, said G. Terry Madonna, who directs the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. "Do I think it's an issue that will play out? The answer is yes."
Beyond tarnishing its legendary football program, the Penn State scandal pointed at a cover-up by university leaders, including a former president who is awaiting trial.
Mr. Corbett declined to be interviewed for this article. He has denied delaying or mishandling any aspect of the investigation.
"The governor is happy to talk to anybody about it, including Kathleen Kane," said his spokesman, Kevin Harley. "The proof is the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 of 48 counts, and he will spend the rest of his life in jail because of the work of the men and women in the attorney general's office and the State Police."
Ms. Kane, 46, is a former county prosecutor who specialized in child sex abuse cases. She questioned why it took 33 months to arrest Mr. Sandusky in late 2011 after Mr. Corbett, as attorney general, received a complaint against Mr. Sandusky in the spring of 2009.
"It's never taken me that long" to build a case against a molester, Ms. Kane said in the Harrisburg office she had just moved into, a Carpe Diem paperweight on her desk, adding that speed matters because child abusers seek new victims. "I was on the campaign trail almost two years; I didn't go a single place without somebody asking me why it took so long."
She also questioned the influence of campaign donations Mr. Corbett received from a charity Mr. Sandusky founded, the Second Mile, whose board members contributed to Mr. Corbett's run for governor. Investigators at the time suspected Mr. Sandusky of using the foundation, which helped troubled youth, to find victims.
Mr. Corbett's spokesman said he could not have returned the Second Mile contributions because at the time the case was before the grand jury and he was sworn to secrecy.
Ms. Kane also questioned whether Mr. Corbett devoted enough staff to the investigation and whether agents were trained to pursue child abusers.
Mr. Corbett has said his investigation moved slowly because for a long time there was only a single accuser against Mr. Sandusky. Investigators feared that the evidence was too weak to win a conviction.
"The criticism that Ms. Kane has is that she would never have put this in a grand jury," Mr. Corbett told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week. "My observation is, I don't think she's ever been involved in a grand jury or understands how it operates."
Ms. Kane replied that in her 12 years as an assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County, she brought at least a half-dozen cases to grand juries -- though never for child abuse, because young victims are distraught having to speak to 30 or more jurors.
Randy Feathers, who supervised the investigating agents when Mr. Corbett was attorney general, said that from the time he got the assignment several months after the initial accusation there were at least two to four agents pursuing the case.
It took as long as it did, he said, because "we felt like we had no shot" winning in court with just a single victim testifying against Mr. Sandusky, who "walked on water" as an assistant for 31 years to the famous Penn State head coach, Joe Paterno.
So they looked for other victims. "You very rarely find a predator in those circumstances who only molested one kid," said Mr. Feathers, now retired. "Our job was to find those kids."
He added, "Tom Corbett had nothing to do with slowing anything down."
Ms. Kane said she would accept whatever conclusion the special prosecutor reached.
"I am not afraid at the very end, after every stone has been turned, to tell everyone, 'Nothing went wrong here,' " she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.