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What does a state attorney general really do?

  • Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, right, accompanied by her attorney Gerald Shargel, center, departs after a pretrial hearing in her grand jury leak case Wednesday at the Montgomery County courthouse in Norristown. Kane is accused of…
    Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, right, accompanied by her attorney Gerald Shargel, center, departs after a pretrial hearing in her grand jury leak case Wednesday at the Montgomery County courthouse in Norristown. Kane is accused of leaking secret grand jury information to the press, lying under oath and ordering aides to illegally snoop through computer files to keep tabs on an investigation into the leak. AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE Copyright - Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.
Published April 25. 2016 04:01PM

The Pennsylvania attorney general is the state's top lawyer. The office can bring down drug rings, investigate public corruption and it defends the state when it is sued.

The attorney general is also a political figure, working with the governor and the Legislature to reform state drug laws, its prison system and to combat the state's heroin epidemic.

Most of the modern, elected Pennsylvania attorneys general have been former prosecutors - either district attorneys or U.S. Attorneys. Television ads that mention a candidate is tough on crime can reinforce the perception that the attorney general's job is to put criminals behind bars - almost like a statewide district attorney.

However, that view doesn't capture the vast responsibilities of the attorney general's office. In addition to investigating criminal operations, the attorney general's office looks into scams targeting seniors, violations of the state's clean air and water laws and evaluates whether mergers break antitrust laws.

Given that the current attorney general's law license was suspended, it brings into question what the attorney general does on a daily basis and what skills are required to be a good attorney general.

Job description

The attorney general, in essence, runs a large law firm with broad scope that includes investigating drug traffickers, Medicaid fraud and prescription drug abuse. The office works on criminal, civil and consumer protection cases and has 830 employees in offices across the state, according to the latest figures provided by the attorney general's office. More than half of those employees work on criminal cases.

The attorney general rarely appears in court, but makes key decisions on major cases, assists in local and federal investigations and meets with legislators and constituents on a regular basis, according to Walter Cohen, who served as first deputy attorney general over six years and then as acting attorney general for several months in 1995.

The attorney general's office investigates crimes or schemes that span multiple counties. It also works with federal investigators on cases that span multiple states.

The criminal division investigates drug trafficking, child predators (more than 150 were arrested each of the past two years), organized crime and public corruption, according to the office's 2015 annual report.

The attorney general's office makes headlines when they break up drug rings, such as when they arrested more than 30 people in north-central Pennsylvania or when they arrested 34 in southwestern Pennsylvania, both last year.

An example of a prominent public corruption case the AG's office was involved in was last year's discovery that former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed bought thousands of historical artifacts with millions of taxpayer dollars.

The attorney general's office can also supersede a local district attorney if they can prove that the DA did not pursue a case he or she should have.

The candidates

Five candidates, three Democrats and two Republicans, are running to succeed Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane. She declined to run for a second term after being charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, among other crimes, and had her law license suspended by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

To become attorney general, you have to be able to practice law in Pennsylvania, be at least 30 years old and have lived in Pennsylvania for the past seven years (exceptions for politicians and public employees).

Of the five candidates, there are two politicians and three with extensive experience as prosecutors.

Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican John Rafferty, the two politicians, are trying to convince voters to take a broad view of the attorney general's office.

"To view this office as just another DA or super-DA … unfortunately and unnecessarily limits the scope of what this job is really all about," Shapiro said at an April 13 debate at Widener University's Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg.

Shapiro is the chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and was appointed to be the chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency by Gov. Tom Wolf about a year ago. The PCCD coordinates criminal and juvenile justice reforms across multiple state agencies and provides grants for substance abuse education, to support crime victims and people with mental health issues.

Rafferty has 13 years of experience as a Pennsylvania state senator from the 44th district, which spans portions of Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties. He began his legal career investigating Medicaid fraud in the attorney general's office. He likened his experience to that of former Attorney General Mike Fisher, who served in the state senate for 16 years before being elected attorney general in 1996.

The two longtime Democratic district attorneys in the race - Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala and Northampton County DA John Morganelli - have run their offices for 18 and 24 years, respectively. They have been emphasizing the criminal law aspect of the office.

"I think you have to be a prosecutor. As district attorney, our forum is the courthouse. Our forum is the streets. The criteria we use is facts, and we use evidence," Zappala said at the Widener debate.

Morganelli is currently the longest-serving district attorney in the state, and this is his fourth try at becoming attorney general.

"You need to have good legal experience and the district attorney's office is the breeding ground for that experience," Morganelli said.

Republican candidate Joe Peters was a Scranton police officer, an organized crime and drug prosecutor in the attorney general's office for 15 years, a federal mafia prosecutor and oversaw a White House drug trafficking program. He most recently served as Kathleen Kane's spokesman for about eight months in 2013 and 2014.

"We are electing the chief law enforcement officer," Peters said at the Widener debate. "It's that way in the Commonwealth Attorneys Act. It's that way in the perception of the public. … We need the most experienced person who can walk into that office and lead it on day one."

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