By Angela Couloumbisand Craig R. McCoy

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has appointed the former top law enforcement officer in Maryland to head a wide-ranging investigation into the chain of pornographic emails exchanged among state prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials on government computers.

Standing at a dais inside the National Constitution Center, Kane said Douglas Gansler, Maryland's former attorney general, will lead a team of special prosecutors to review the emails and decide whether those who circulated them violated any criminal, civil or ethics laws.

Gansler and the prosecutors who will work with him will have "the sword of prosecutorial powers" to carry out the investigation, Kane said. She said there were "thousands" of offensive emails, a sampling of which she displayed on a jumbotron before she began speaking.

The images, she said, exposed a "constitutional crisis" in state government because they ridicule and demean women, minorities, gays and lesbians.

"No African American should walk into a courtroom where the judge or prosecutor or defense attorney mocks him or her," she said. "No woman should go to work and be subjected to consistent treatment of disgusting indignity by women-haters because they were born with one less body part -- which, the last I heard, does not contain any extra brain cells.

"I will not allow it on my watch -- no matter how long that watch lasts," said Kane, whose term could be cut short because the state Senate has initiated a proceeding to remove her from office. The Senate acted in response to the criminal charges Kane is facing, along with the suspension of her law license.

Gansler said he and his team will be independent, not even consulting with Kane during the inquiry.

"We will take the facts wherever they lead us," he said. "And if crimes are uncovered, we will prosecute them . . . We have no baggage. We have no preconceived notions other than to do our job and do it well."

The scope of the inquiry almost immediately raised questions about whether Kane has the authority to launch the inquiry.

Kane, a Democrat, has said she views her decision as one that involves policy, not law, and thus said it does not violate the requirement that she refrain from practicing while her license is suspended.

On Tuesday, she took aim at those who questioned her authority -- including people on her staff: "Are you a white male? Are you or one of your buddies in this email network? Are you trying to get my job without the benefit of having to run for it and be chosen by the people of Pennsylvania?"

In calling for a special prosecutor, Kane has the support of a growing number of elected officials in Philadelphia, including members of City Council and the state legislature.

The Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women has also backed her calls for further investigation into the email scandal, which over the last year has forced more than a half dozen people to resign, including a Supreme Court justice and a high-ranking member of former Gov. Corbett's administration.

Kane's choice of Gansler as the lead prosecutor was notable. Though he has handled several high-profile cases in his career, he also became mired in controversy last year when he made an unsuccessful run to be the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor.

He faced scrutiny for ordering his security detail to routinely break traffic laws to avoid being in traffic, as well as for making controversial remarks about a political opponent.

He also made national headlines when, in 2013, he was photographed at a beach party where there was apparent underage drinking, and did nothing to put a stop to it. He later said he was there to check in on his son, and said it was a mistake not to act.

As for his new assignment, it was not immediately clear how much work Gansler, who is not licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania, can actually perform.

Also unclear is how much he will be paid, although Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo has said the Attorney General's office will pay for the inquiry. Gansler estimated that the bill will not top $2 million.

Kane could face pushback on her decision to name special prosecutors. Her law license was suspended in September, shortly after she was criminally charged with leaking confidential information to a newspaper in a bid to embarrass a political enemy.

Without an active law license, she is barred from making legal decisions, and critics have raised questions about her authority to appoint special prosecutors who will be looking for possible criminal violations.

Last week, Ardo said Kane viewed the appointment of a special prosecutor as a policy decision, and that even with a suspended law license, she believes she still has full authority over hiring and firing.

Kane's choice of venue for Tuesday's announcement was striking. The Constitution Center was where she declared, at the height of her political popularity during her first year in office, that she would not defend the state's ban on gay marriage.

Kane has repeatedly denounced the emails since she discovered last year that her office had been a hub for swapping porn, and that the messages were traded among judges, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials.

Yet while vowing repeatedly to expose all of the offensive messages, she has released only a sampling, leading to criticism that she is using them as a weapon to target critics or others she believes have wronged her.

Kane has maintained that the criminal charges she faces were "corruptly manufactured" by angry Republican men who were trying to prevent her from exposing the email scandal.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer