By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
Ellen Granahan, a deputy attorney general in the state attorney general’s office, had more than just a passing rooting interest in the 2012 campaign to elect her boss — Granahan’s twin sister Kathleen Kane was the Democratic candidate.
Kane, a Democrat from Lackawanna County, won and became Pennsylvania’s first female attorney general. And her sister’s boss.
Three months after Kane took office, Granahan was quietly promoted and given a $13,652-a-year raise.
“While AG Kane would never promote Ellen because she is her sister, neither would she discriminate against her on that basis,” said Joe Peters, a spokesman in the Attorney General’s office.
Granahan was hired in 2008 by then-Attorney General Tom Corbett. A Corbett spokesman declined to comment about Granahan’s promotion.
Granahan is not the only well-connected prosecutor in the attorney general’s office. Corbett’s daughter Katherine Corbett-Gibson is also a deputy attorney general. Corbett-Gibson was hired by Attorney General Linda Kelly after Corbett took office as governor, said Nils Fredericksen, a spokesman in the governor’s office of general counsel.
“(Granahan) was recently selected to head the Child Predator Unit because she is the most qualified and experienced attorney in terms of child sexual abuse matters,” Peters said. “The CPU is a priority for Attorney General Kane, and Ellen shares that passion and commitment.”
Granahan is one of 20 chief deputy attorneys general in the office, each of whom leads a division. Granahan’s pay of $83,423 a year is the lowest of the chief deputies, according to a spreadsheet of salaries provided by the Attorney General’s office.
The state Office of Administration, which provides human resources services for many state agencies, does have a management directive barring state employees from being in situations were a relative directly reports to him or her, said Daniel Egan, an Office of Administration spokesman.
“That’s the minimum standard,” Egan said. “Some agencies go further and prohibit family members anywhere in the chain of command, direct or indirect.”
The Attorney General’s office is independent is not bound by that directive, he said.
Peters said that one of the first tasks taken after Kane took office was to sort out potential conflicts of interest and come up with a strategy for dealing with them. In Granahan’s case, the solution was to assign all management of her to First Deputy Attorney General Adrian King, Peters said. King then decided that Granahan should be promoted, he said.
Pennsylvania Ethics Commission executive director Robert Caruso said that there is nothing in the state ethic act that would have dealt with the fact that Granahan worked in the office before Kane was elected and became her boss. However, the ethics act might be relevant if there are questions about Kane’s role in determining that Granahan deserved the promotion.
“That’s the $10,000 question,” Caruso said.
The ethics act states that public officials cannot use elected office for personal financial gain for themselves or family members.
The approach taken in the attorney general’s office is the typical manner used to try to shield elected officials from perceived conflicts of interest when relatives are being hired in their offices, Caruso said.
“There has to be a barrier,” Caruso said.
But even so, it is tricky to determine whether the public official is still influencing the hiring decision no matter who makes the actual hire, said Eric Epstein, who leads the government watchdog group Rock the Capital.
“The boss may not be the one who made the promotion but in the back of the mind of person doing the hiring, they know it’s the boss’s relative,” Epstein said. “And it would certainly make it an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner if one sister asked the other why she didn’t get the promotion she wanted.”
The promotion of her sister comes after Kane ran on an ethics platform that critical of the way previous attorney generals (including the current governor) managed the office, Epstein said.
“I’m not saying it’s unethical, but the appearance is unsettling,” Epstein said. “You are looking at a bright gray area.”
Nathan Benefield, director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation, saw little gray.
“If Kathleen Kane had anything to do with promoting her sister, it is a pretty clear conflict of interest under state law,” Benefield said.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s laws on nepotism are among the weakest and worst enforced in the nation, and this sort of thing goes on all the time — the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission being a prime example of nepotism and patronage run amok, Benefield said.
Kane might have been better served to publicly disclose her sister’s relationship at the time Granahan was promoted, Epstein said.
“It’s a unique situation. We don’t want (Granahan) to lose her job just because her sister got elected,” Epstein said, noting that Granahan’s qualifications suggest she may be perfectly suited for the job.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.