In the Soup

When Top Prosecutors Break Bad

Attorneys general are supposed to nab the criminals. So what does it say about our politics that two of them—a Pennsylvania Democrat and Texas Republican—were indicted this month?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

In theory, attorneys general are the people who are supposed catch the bad guys, not be them.

But now two attorneys general from big, important states have been indicted within the space of a few days of each other. One is accused of forgetting to tell investors in an energy project that he had a stake in it, and the other is accused of leaking secret grand jury proceedings to the media to smear political opponents.

The more colorful story comes to us from Texas, where Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted on felony securities fraud charges. If you’re from outside Texas and Paxton’s name is ringing a vague bell, it might be because a mere two days after the Supreme Court issued its same-sex marriage decision, Paxton came out roaring that judges in the great state of Texas were entitled to deny marriage licenses based on their religious beliefs. I think Alabama may have beaten him to the punch on that one, but that’s about it. Paxton’s move led some other Texas lawyers to start calling for him to be disbarred.

The merest look into Paxton’s track record leaves you shaking your head that the man ever managed to become Texas’s top lawyer to begin with. He’s been in the financial soup before. Back when he was a legislator, he got hooked up in a Ponzi scheme. In that one, he got bilked and lost nearly $100,000. The man who according to the Dallas Morning News perpetrated the swindle had previously established his credibility by being part of an expedition group that claimed to have found the remains of Noah’s Ark in Iran.

Paxton also seems to have lifted a $1,000 Montblanc pen that another man had left behind at a security checkpoint. This wasn’t revealed until after he was elected AG. And now, a grand jury in his home county north of Dallas says he talked friends into investing $600,000 in an energy company while failing to tell them that he was making a commission off their investments. An attorney general!

Paxton’s attorneys have said he will plead not guilty.

In Pennsylvania, the indicted attorney general is Kathleen Kane, who in 2012 became the first female Democrat ever elected to the job. In the Democratic primary, she beat Patrick Murphy, the former congressman and Iraq War veteran.

The Kane indictment has its roots in a 2014 Philadelphia Daily News article about how a different prosecutor bungled an investigation into a local civil rights leader a few years prior. Kane had sparred with that prosecutor, so when people started wondering where the Daily News got its info, thoughts turned naturally toward Kane’s office. Kane acknowledged that her office may have provided the paper with some material but insisted that none of it was bound by secrecy rules. Or maybe that someone in her office did that without her knowledge. Now she’s been charged with perjuring and obstructing administration of law, though she maintains she has done nothing wrong.

Kane is slightly more than just a local Philly story. After beating Murphy, she dispatched the Republican in a landslide. She got talked up for a lot of races. Big future. And she clearly has connections beyond southeastern Pennsylvania. It popped my eyes a little to see that Kane is being represented by Gerald Shargel. Why? Because Shargel is a New York lawyer. And he is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, a mob lawyer. Partly. He does other stuff. He’s a brilliant lawyer, and everybody up to and including John Gotti is entitled to a vigorous defense. It’s just a little surprising.

But Shargel is Clarence Darrow compared to the man Kane had doing her public relations, Washington lobbyist Lanny Davis. On this front, she chose to link arms with Ivory Coast war criminal Laurent Gbagbo and National Football League thought criminal and Washington, D.C., football team owner Dan Snyder, both of whom had been served by this same PR heavy. But about a month before her indictment, Kane’s wiser angels prevailed, and she ended her relationship with Davis. Or maybe he severed ties to her. It’s unclear. In any case, the Allentown Morning Call reports that Davis was her 10th PR adviser in the space of two years.

We’ve all come not to expect much from politicians. And in a lot of places, at the local and state level, when a pol retires after 20 or 30 years without ever having been indicted, that’s something that counts as a legitimate accomplishment. But from attorneys general, who direct huge staffs of lawyers and investigators and can destroy careers and put people in jail, it would be nice to do a little better than this.