By Craig R. McCoy and Angela Couloumbis
Now it is Risa Vetri Ferman's time to decide whether a case against a public official is good enough to prosecute.
Ferman, the Montgomery County district attorney, has been handed a high-stakes assignment: Sources say a grand jury has recommended that she prosecute the state's highest law enforcement official.
She must decide whether to bring a criminal case against Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who sources say the grand jury concluded broke the law by leaking secret investigative material in a bid to embarrass a political foe.
Ferman must decide whether to adopt a criminal case that she did not begin or build.
For Kane, the news last week that the grand jury recommended her arrest was a blow to a public image that has been under assault throughout much of 2014.
"I did nothing illegal. Period," Kane said in a statement Friday. "Any fair and impartial review of the facts would conclude that. This seems to me to be another political attack on my attempt to clean up Harrisburg and its political culture."
Her lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, held a news conference Saturday to proclaim her innocence and say she would not step down if charged.
Kane's woes began early last year after The Inquirer reported she had secretly shut down an undercover sting investigation that caught five public officials on tape taking money.
Kane, who inherited the investigation when she took office, called the case weak, "half-assed," and possibly tainted by racial targeting.
Those assertions were undermined once Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who took over the investigation, announced the bribery arrests of three former or current elected officials from Philadelphia.
News of the grand jury's recommendation broke the same week that Ferman announced she would not seek a third four-year term as county prosecutor, but would seek a judgeship while serving her last year as district attorney.
Politics expert G. Terry Madonna, of Franklin and Marshall College, said the Kane decision would put Ferman under an additional spotlight.
"It's certainly going to elevate her profile," he said. "The eyes of the state are going to be on how she handles this assignment."
Ferman, 49, is the first woman to serve as district attorney in Montgomery County. A Republican, she joined the District Attorney's Office in Montgomery County in 1993, right out of law school. She became the head of the sex-crimes team and later the first assistant district attorney, the second-in-command in the office. First elected district attorney in 2007, she has worked steadily as a prosecutor for 21 years.
Kane, 48, is Pennsylvania's first female and Democratic attorney general. She was an assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County for a dozen years, specializing in child-abuse prosecutions and trying about two dozen cases. She quit in 2007 and was a stay-at-home mother before launching her bid for attorney general in 2012.
Ferman could not be reached for comment Friday. Since becoming county D.A., she has won a reputation as a no-nonsense and nonpartisan prosecutor. She has launched innovative programs, including a tough DUI court.
But like Kane, Ferman has faced criticism.
Her office bungled a rape case last year against the then-Montgomery County Republican chairman, when an investigator misread a lab report. After the errors surfaced, Ferman turned the case over to the Attorney General's Office. The defendant, Robert Kerns, later pleaded guilty to sexual assault.
Also last year, the county paid $1.6 million to a Radnor contractor who was falsely arrested on charges of stealing from a Jenkintown church. As part of the settlement, Ferman apologized to him.
She also fired the county detective who led the investigation.
Ferman concluded that her investigators had erred in adopting legal arguments from the church's legal team, even permitting its lawyer to rewrite charging documents.
That experience might prompt her to be especially vigilant in reviewing the Kane investigation, which was also prepared by others.
In most cases, the prosecutors who present a case to a grand jury immediately make the arrest in a case they have built.
In this unusual situation, another official, Special Prosecutor Thomas Carluccio, a Plymouth Meeting lawyer, led the investigation, but it will be up to others to actually bring the case -- if Ferman approves one.
Her office was assigned the case because the grand jury sits in Norristown. It is one of three such investigative juries across the state.
Ferman and her team plan to review the grand jury transcripts, including testimony from Kane and others, as well as some of her top aides. They will also examine documents assembled to build a case against Kane. Some sources say her staff may conduct fresh interviews.
That could take weeks or even months. By way of comparison, seven months passed between the time Philadelphia District Attorney Williams agreed to adopt the sting case and his first arrest.
Former prosecutor L. George Parry, a veteran Philadelphia lawyer, predicted that Ferman would go foward with a case against Kane, absent significant factual or legal flaws in the grand jury presentment.
To reject charges, Parry said, "she would have to, in effect, take a bullet for Kathleen Kane and I don't think that's in the cards."
Depending on Ferman's decision, Kane might find herself in the awkward position of having to defend herself against criminal charges while serving as the state's top law enforcement official.
If charged, she would face a new political test: explaining why she should remain in office while battling charges that she broke the law.
The state constitution would permit her to stay in office if charged. She would have to resign only if convicted.
Kane's camp has signaled that she would fight any charges. In an interview last month, she said she intended to run for reelection next year.
Still, even Kane's most vocal supporters have gone largely silent over the last few months, as the grand jury investigated the alleged leak.
And even before news broke of the grand jury's presentment, some Republicans in the legislature were calling for her impeachment.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), one of the body's most conservative lawmakers and one of Kane's fiercest critics, said Friday that she should resign.
"Right now, her credibility has really been damaged to the point that she can't be an effective attorney general," he said.
Metcalfe circulated a resolution before Christmas calling for Kane's impeachment. "She has displayed a blatant disregard and disrespect for the law," he said.
A spokeswoman for Kane said at the time that Metcalfe was driven by ideology, including anger at Kane's decision not to defend the state's ban on gay marriage.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, would not comment on how much, if any, support Metcalfe's impeachment resolution has among GOP leadership.
But other top Republicans said privately that the GOP-controlled chamber, which would be the one to launch impeachment hearings, would likely not even ponder impeachment unless charges were brought.
Rep. Scott Petri (R., Bucks), chair of the House Committee on Ethics during the last session, said the legislature should not take such drastic action until or unless charges were filed.
"We are a little bit blind to what the truth and the facts are," said Petri. "Once the presentment becomes public, we will be in a much better position to make decisions."
Inquirer staff writer Jessica Parks contributed to this article.
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