Why So Many Attorneys General Are in Legal Peril

A striking number of current and former state AGs are facing criminal charges or investigations.
by | July 10, 2015

*This story was last updated August 3 at 10:09 a.m.

State attorneys general are lawyering up.

A striking number of current and former state AGs are facing criminal charges or investigations. The five cases, which range from allegations of corruption to campaign finance violations, are unrelated and differ in levels of seriousness. But they all illustrate one point: As attorneys general have grown more powerful, they've become tempting targets for their fellow prosecutors and political rivals.

Contemporary AGs have found strength in numbers, banding together far more often in multistate cases than was the case a couple of decades ago. By challenging industries such as pharmaceutical makers and mortgage lenders, as well as the federal government, they've become de facto national policymakers.

"The possibility of corruption and lobbying violations is more likely now both because of the greater spotlight on AGs, due to their expanded powers, as well as the far greater flow of lobbying money going to the occupants of these offices since the mid-2000s," said Paul Nolette, author of a recent book on AGs, Federalism on Trial. He believes the current five facing problems are the most since the 1980s.

In Texas, GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted by special prosecutors in a securities fraud case.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, is awaiting word as to whether she'll be indicted for lying to a grand jury.

"Right now, her legal future is in the hands of the district attorney from Montgomery County," said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Last month, former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff pleaded not guilty to several counts of corruption. Another former Utah Republican AG, John Swallow, is also expected to plead not guilty later this month in a related case.

In Vermont, Republicans accused Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell of illegally coordinating activity between his 2012 re-election campaign and a super PAC. In May, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed a former GOP state representative to investigate the matter.

And in Colorado, critics accused GOP Attorney General Cynthia Coffman of extortion, saying that she and a former congressman and a county party chair warned state GOP Chair Steve House that if he didn't resign, word would get out about an alleged affair.

"I think this is something that will follow her," said former GOP state House Speaker Frank McNulty. "From what I know and what I've read, there's no there there for criminal charges, but it's something she's going to have to deal with politically."

As McNulty points out, attorneys general are held to a higher standard than other state officials. Whenever one appears to be in any kind of legal trouble, the press invariably describes the AG as "the chief law enforcement officer in the state."

In the case of Kane in Pennsylvania, the long-running investigations have led to additional scrutiny of her handling of the office in general. Some longtime staff attorneys have been fired, while an aide who wrote a supportive public letter received a substantial raise.

"From the internal operations of her department, she looks like -- I'm using that term advisedly -- it looks like she's penalizing anyone on her staff who does things she doesn't like," Madonna said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran an article with the exceptionally blunt headline, "Probes have made the Pa. attorney general's office a hell in Harrisburg."

There's quiet talk in Democratic circles of finding a replacement to run in Kane's stead next year. Already, Rob McCord, the former Pennsylvania state treasurer, pleaded guilty in February to two federal counts of extortion. It's easy to guess what sort of ads Republicans would run if two statewide Democratic officeholders had been charged since the last election.

"There's been a black cloud over the attorney general's office as of late," GOP state Sen. John Rafferty said last month, as he announced his candidacy for AG.

Again, Kane has yet to be formally charged with any crime. Accusations against her, or the other AGs who have lately come under fire, may never stick. But any attorney general has to recognize that he or she could face accusations of wrongdoing in the current environment.

"The mix of increased money, power and attention involved with these offices heightens both the possibility of actual corruption, as well as more partisan-oriented allegations of wrongdoing on the part of political opponents," said Nolette. "In that sense -- and even though the current cases are not explicitly connected -- I do think that the ground is increasingly fertile for AGs to face these types of investigations."