Two attorneys general indicted in one week: What gets top cops in trouble?

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton were arrested recently, showing that not even a top cop is above the law. The two cases illustrate the unique human foibles that can ensnare the powerful.

Eric Gay/AP/File
In this Wednesday, July 29, 2015 file photo, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks during a hearing in Austin, Texas.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane faced criminal arraignment on Saturday for allegedly covering up a revenge conspiracy, only days after Texas attorney general Ken Paxton was arrested on securities fraud charges.

The timing of the arrests appeared coincidental, as conspiracy investigations into both offices had been ongoing and widely publicized. But the proximity of the arrests, and the seriousness of the charges, brought renewed attention to corruption in the top ranks of American law enforcement, especially given an increase in lobbying of top cops by powerful US corporations who want less legal exposure to operate.

Like any other elected official, attorneys general are faced with the perils of power, including sharp oversight on matters of corruption in office. But the image of the top law enforcement officials in major US states facing criminal charges also underscores how basic human foibles, including greed and thirst for revenge, can stymie even those charged with upholding the law, and making examples of brazen lawbreakers.

With Ms. Kane’s arrest, two of Pennsylvania’s last five attorneys general have faced charges that carry prison time. And last year, two former attorneys general in Utah were arrested on the same day for allegedly taking bribes to drop charges against a corporation. Those allegations included one top cop using the luxury jet of a businessman facing legal scrutiny.

Attorneys general act as the top prosecutors in a state, and 43 of them are elected, including Kane and Mr. Paxton. They make the ultimate determination on whether to bring charges in major cases, and also direct prosecutions. The pressure on the office has only grown, according to media reports. The New York Times reported last year that AGs were increasingly “the object of aggressive pursuit by lobbyists and lawyers” trying to bid for lenient treatment by regulators.

“An attorney general is entrusted with the power to decide which lawsuits to file and how to settle them, and they have great discretion in their work,” Anthony Johnstone, a former assistant attorney general in Montana, told the Times. “It’s vitally important that people can trust that those judgments are not subject to undue influence because of outside forces. And from what I have seen in recent years, I am concerned and troubled that those forces have intensified.”

Even the suggestion of closed-door lobbying or misuse of power is part of a long-running argument to stop electing top prosecutors.

“Anybody prosecuting at that high a level, and who is elected, may include politics within consideration of what they do,” David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Partly for that reason, “state attorneys general weren’t always elected.”

For his part, Paxton faces charges from a Collin County grand jury that he violated state securities rules by soliciting clients for a friend’s investment firm. He also faces a third felony charge for representing investors without properly registering to do so.

Paxton has pled not guilty, and he has been defended by the Republican Party in Texas, which says the prosecution itself is politically motivated

"Some of the outrageous events surrounding this sloppy process certainly do not typify the level of quality that Texans expect from our judicial system," Aaron Whitehead, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas, told CNN. "Ken Paxton, like all Americans, deserves to have his say in a court of law, rather than be judged in a court of public opinion that is presided over by liberal interest groups."

Kane, too, says she will plead not guilty.  "I intend to defend myself vigorously against these charges," she said in a statement. "A resignation would be an admission of guilt and I'm not guilty." Gov. Tom Wolf has asked her to step down.

Kane was charged Thursday with perjury, obstruction, conspiracy, and other serious offenses for allegedly leaking secret grand jury information “in hopes of embarrassing and harming former state prosecutors she believed, without evidence, made her look bad,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.

The fact that corruption allegations against Kane appear to have more to do with personal vengeance than any actual illegal favoritism suggests that there’s little momentum for ending a tradition in 43 states of electing the attorney general.

“You hate to make policy based on the weakness of one person,” former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate, who went to prison in 1995 for campaign violations, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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