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November 22, 2016

Pennsylvania A.G. releases 'Porngate' report — but without names

Bruce Beemer says many emails flagged by law firm are not offensive

The Pennsylvania attorney general on Tuesday released a report that flagged some 11,000 emails sent and shared by state judges, senior government officials and employees of his own office as pornographic, racist, misogynistic or otherwise offensive.

But Attorney General Bruce R. Beemer redacted the identities of 51 individuals listed in the report for sending inappropriate emails. 

Beemer said his office declined to name names after conducting its own review of the report, saying many of the flagged emails should not have been labeled offensive.

The report, issued by Washington law firm BuckleySandler, was commissioned by former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane after an unrelated investigation turned up a series of offensive emails between Office of Attorney General employees and other state employees, including some judges. The firm reviewed 6.4 million emails dating from 2008 to 2015.

Beemer acknowledged the report uncovered "hundreds" of "patently offensive" emails, many of which were previously disclosed to the public. But he was critical of the report's methodology, saying the law firm had wrongfully flagged thousands of emails that were not offensive, or questionable, at best. As a result, Beemer said many people named in the report were improperly implicated.

Despite the inappropriate emails, Beemer stressed the report found no evidence that any inappropriate communications impacted that administration of justice in Pennsylvania. It also found no evidence of any crimes committed.

"I wanted there to be no mistake about the content of what was in here," Beemer said at an hour-long press conference in Harrisburg. "Therefore, we are including over 1,000 emails, which is a very representative sample of everything from innocuous emails to emails that may be questionable to patently offensive emails."

The report identified 38 individuals as high-volume senders of emails flagged as offensive. Another 11 people were listed as either judges or senior government officials. Another appendix, left out of the report, listed "hundreds" of people flagged for sending at least one, but less than 50 offensive emails, Beemer said.

Several high-ranking state officials, including former state Supreme Court justices Michael Eakin and Seamus McCaffery, were implicated in previous coverage of the so-called Porngate scandal, which came to light in 2014. Eakin was suspended in December 2015 and resigned in March. McCaffery resigned in 2014.

But Beemer said no crimes were committed and releasing the complete list would unfairly damage their reputations and subject the OAG to potential lawsuits. With $385,000 already spent on the report, Beemer said he felt that was the best decision for his office and and taxpayers.

"Look at the total body of what transpired," Beemer said. "Look at the report and then ask yourselves, would you feel comfortable naming those individuals, knowing the state of the law in Pennsylvania and the difficulties the Attorney General's Office would have in dealing with all of this."

The vast majority of high-volume emailers held non-managerial or lower level positions within government agencies. Because of that, Beemer said they fell outside the primary charge of the email review — to determine any conflicts or collusion that disrupted the administration of justice.

The report included five judges — including Eakin and McCaffrey. Of the three unnamed judges, Beemer said their flagged emails consisted almost entirely of communication with their spouses or other family members.

Some 60 OAG employees who sent emails have been internally disciplined with consequences ranging from written reprimands to terminations, Beemer said. Others were improperly implicated by a methodology Beemer deemed "extremely overinclusive and somewhat troubling."

To identify offensive language and obscene content, BuckleySandler used a computer program designed to flag search terms related to race, religion, sex and profanity, Beemer said. It ultimately characterized 11,930 emails as inappropriate.

But Beemer's internal review found that any email mentioning Muslims, African-Americans, Irish people, Italians and the word "gay" was flagged as inappropriate, among other improperly labeled emails.

A network of women diagnosed with breast cancer had their emails flagged because they used a phrase commonly used to encourage self-detection. A Jewish employee had an email flagged for sending an article about how Jewish people voted in the 2010 election. And a Catholic employee had an email flagged after he admitted he ate a hot dog on a Friday during Lent.

Other cases included profanity that many people commonly use, Beemer said.

"In many instances, they are conversations that people are having with other people, where they are using words that are deemed to be offensive," Beemer said. "Some start with the letter 'B.' Some start with the letter 'S.' Some start with the letter 'F.'"

BuckleySandler and former Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, one of the firm's partners, were hired last December to review potentially inappropriate relationships among prosecutors, judges and others involved in the criminal justice system.

The report was completed on Aug. 18, 2016 — 12 days before Beemer was confirmed as attorney general, replacing Kathleen Kane, who was convicted of perjury charges.

Beemer launched his own review of the report, tapping four of the OAG's most seasoned attorneys to review emails of the 51 individuals named in the report. The attorneys — three women, including an African-American, and one man — helped Beemer determine the circumstances under which he would release the BuckleySandler report.

"If there was an easy decision to make, we wouldn't have taken so much time or been so deliberative about it," Beemer said.