Pennsylvania attorney general candidates set their priorities
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HARRISBURG -- Former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky may be behind bars, but questions over the work of the state attorney general's office to put him there still loom large in the race to select the next head of that agency.
Former Lackawanna County prosecutor Kathleen Kane says it will take a Democrat -- the first in the three decades since Pennsylvania's attorney general became an elected position -- to properly review whether the Republican-led office acted with sufficient speed during the three-year investigation.
"I've said from day one, they can trust me to really look at the case and find the whole truth," said Ms. Kane, 46. "The people of Pennsylvania can trust that whatever I find will be the truth."
She contends that her GOP opponent, Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, would be biased in reviewing that state probe because of his ties to Gov. Tom Corbett, who was attorney general when the case began.
Mr. Freed, 42, disagrees, insisting that he, too, would review and then publicize his conclusions as to how the office investigated allegations that Sandusky had sexually abused children he met through his nonprofit.
He compared it to reviewing incidents as district attorney when a local police officer shoots someone in the line of duty and determining whether it is a crime.
"As chief law enforcement officer and chief legal officer, one of the most important things you have to do is make a decision -- you can't let these things linger -- and you put it out there to the public and ultimately you answer to the voters," he said.
The case's prominence in the race comes as Sandusky was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison and as calls from some Democrats for a federal probe have put the Penn State scandal once again in news headlines.
But the office, with its nearly $80 million budget, also tackles an array of other investigations beyond child abuse, from insurance fraud to environmental cases and cybercrimes to illegal-drug probes.
The attorney general elected to lead that office has been neither a woman nor a Democrat since the position became one chosen by the voters in 1980. The winner will succeed Linda Kelly, who promised she would not seek election when Mr. Corbett tapped her to replace him in January 2011.
Also vying for the role is Libertarian Marakay Rogers of York.
Mr. Freed, the Republican, was uncontested in the April primary. Ms. Kane, who won an aggressive primary contest against former U.S. Rep. Pat Murphy, says the support from Mr. Corbett that helped clear the GOP field is reason for voters to be skeptical of her opponent.
He counters that his background leading a district attorney's office and position in the statewide county prosecutors association should tip the scales in his favor. Several of those DA colleagues have lent him their backing, he noted.
At a recent campaign event in Montgomery County, Mr. Freed touted to a small picnic crowd the experience he gained in his six years as district attorney and eight years prior as an assistant DA in that office.
"I've learned to make the gut decisions that only a chief prosecutor can make," he said during his second of five campaign events for the day.
His packed public schedule marks contrast in their political approaches. The Kane campaign has released few details of her schedule to the press, answering questions instead in a phone interview.
Asked about experience, she pointed to her work on elder abuse and sexual assault cases in northeastern Pennsylvania, as well as her role leading the county's insurance fraud task force.
"We are both qualified prosecutors," she said. "Where we're going to differ is independence. I'm independent from Tom Corbett and the Legislature."
What would they focus their efforts on beyond reviewing the Sandusky case file?
Mr. Freed's list includes increasing coordination among government agencies on drug and cybercrime cases, and advocating for early-childhood education. Ms. Kane said she would increase work on fraud against homeowners and veterans, and would weigh in more prominently on pending state legislation.
Amid their differences, both share little-mentioned family ties to the office: Mr. Freed's father-in-law, LeRoy Zimmerman, was the state's first elected attorney general, while Ms. Kane's twin sister works in the attorney general's office on asset forfeiture and money laundering cases.
The most recent fundraising reports, filed in late September, showed the Democratic and Republican contenders with similar war chests. After raising almost $1.5 million over the summer, Ms. Kane had $1.2 million on hand, while Mr. Freed raised $870,000 and had little more than $1 million to spend.
This fall has yet to see the pointed ads from either camp like those that shaped the Democratic primary. But an outside Republican group blasted Philadelphia airwaves last month with an attack ad at the Democrat, accusing her of agreeing to weak plea deals in several cases.
The Republican State Leadership Committee revised its ad when the Kane campaign replied that she was not involved in the cases. The case names were replaced, while the image of a young girl being abducted remained.
Mr. Freed has distanced himself from the RSLC ad, saying he was "disappointed" with the tone. "It's not the ad that I would have run," he said.
In the limited public polling available on the contest, Ms. Kane continues to hold a lead. A mid-month Philadelphia Inquirer poll had her ahead, 41 percent to 29 percent, although nearly one-third of voters said they remain undecided.
Ms. Kane and Mr. Freed will appear in a live debate this evening on the Pennsylvania Cable Network PCN. The event is at 7 p.m., and will re-air at 10 p.m. and at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
First Published October 22, 2012 12:00 am