Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Staff Pushed Philadelphia Inquirer to Be More Critical of Larry Krasner: Emails

Emails provided to The Intercept shed light on an ongoing power struggle between the attorney general and the Philadelphia district attorney.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at a news conference in Philadelphia on March 6, 2019. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP

Officials working on behalf of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro pitched the Philadelphia Inquirer to be more critical of local District Attorney Larry Krasner, according to emails revealed through an open records request.

Several stories published by the Inquirer after Shapiro’s office reached out to the paper, drawing on some of the same arguments that Shapiro’s office had made to the paper, were heavily criticized by criminal justice experts after its publication for painting a misleading picture.

The emails shed light on an ongoing power struggle between two of the area’s top law enforcement officials, pitting the more moderate Shapiro against Krasner, a leading figure in the movement to roll back mass incarceration by taking power at the district attorney level.

On June 18, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Krasner’s office had actually increased the number of gun cases approved for prosecution despite criticism that his approach to criminal justice reform was too lenient. The coverage appeared to rankle officials at Shapiro’s office, who swapped emails criticizing the story and indicating that they subsequently facilitated an off-record phone call with the paper, in which they suggested that future coverage should show that Krasner’s policies were actually linked to increased crime, shootings, and homicides in the city.

Shapiro’s former press secretary, Joe Grace, who left Shapiro’s office earlier this summer and is currently the director of communications for the Philadelphia City Council president, wrote, “Gun prosecutions may be up (1 percent) … but what KIND of gun charges? … Reporter didn’t ask the right follow up question.”

“Indeed,” responded Chief Deputy Attorney General for Gun Violence Brendan O’Malley. “More important though, what is happening to the cases once charged? ARD, low bail, withdraw, further downgrading of charges, ineffective prosecutions and ultimately very low sentences allow violent offenders to be on the street increasing crime and shootings/homicides.”

In other words, Shapiro’s team acknowledged that the increase in charges was real, but wanted a focus on the lenient disposition of those cases and particularly any “shootings/homicides” committed by people who received those lessened sentences or diversions.

“I think [Chris] Palmer and their team will try to get at that next. That’s what our call did for them, one would hope,” Grace wrote back in a reply, including O’Malley, Executive Deputy Attorney General and Criminal Law Director Jennifer Selber, Deputy Chief of Staff Dana Fritz, and current Communications Director Jacklin Rhoads, who at the time also worked in the communications office. Palmer is the Inquirer reporter who wrote the June 18 story. The emails were obtained via an open records request filed by the Justice Collaborative, which advocates for criminal justice reform, and provided to The Intercept.

It’s common practice for officials in question to push back against certain aspects of stories they might find inconvenient, and for reporters to take calls out of courtesy as part of maintaining relationships with the agencies they cover. But the move by the attorney general’s office to attempt to portray their counterpart as having a role in making Philadelphia the state’s most violent city is evidence that Shapiro sees Krasner as a rival and is willing to undermine his office publicly.

The news comes just months after Shapiro’s and Krasner’s offices were pitted against each other over a bill passed in Pennsylvania’s state legislature. Lawmakers passed a controversial measure stripping Krasner of the authority to prosecute certain gun crimes in the city and giving concurrent jurisdiction to Shapiro’s office. The AG’s office, under fire, said it supported the measure and sought concurrent jurisdiction in a number of counties, not just Philadelphia, and would not use the bill to “act unilaterally or go around DA Krasner.” At the Netroots conference in Philadelphia just weeks after the bill passed, local activists pressured Shapiro into saying that he would support a repeal of the bill.

Speaking on background, a spokesperson in Shapiro’s office said they set up a call with the paper after the story came out in order to clarify their office’s role in the Gun Violence Task Force, or GVTF, a special partnership between his office and Krasner’s. Of the commentary between Grace and O’Malley, the spokesperson said, despite what’s contained in the emails, the criticism of Krasner remained between the two of them and wasn’t part of their conversation with the paper.

Asked to comment on the outward appearance that employees of the AG’s office were unhappy with the paper portraying Krasner in a positive light, the AG’s office did not provide a comment on the record.

Following the June 18 story and a call with Shapiro’s office, the Inquirer three days later published a story reporting on the spike of violence in the city against a backdrop of internal strife among officials over who was to blame. U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain blamed Krasner after an August shooting that left six police officers shot, saying that he promoted a “new culture of disrespect for law enforcement” in the city.

One story on June 21 following the call with Shapiro’s office cited the Inquirer’s own analysis of gun cases before Krasner took office, finding that the DA secured a lower number of guilty verdicts and threw out more cases during the last three months of 2018 than his predecessor did over the same time period the previous year. Another story on June 23 highlighted a single case in which an individual who Krasner had recommended for a diversionary program called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition ended up being arrested again later in March for gun possession, and again in June for murder in a shooting. “[Maalik] Jackson-Wallace’s case has been cited by some on social media as an example of how they say [Krasner’s] policies are too lenient and lead to gun violence,” the story reads.

In a June 23 email, Mike Vereb, who directs government affairs for Shapiro’s office and is a former Republican representative in the Pennsylvania House, wrote, “My reaction to holding a paper in my hand is the fact that JDs [Josh Shapiro’s] pic is not in this article is a good thing. I am curious how you guys feel. This is not going to end well during the summer. Phila gun violence and Krasner are a topic of conversation in the Oval Office. I am directly aware of a meeting Friday on this topic unfortunately I am not aware of the results. But for some reason Trump is focused on this. My outside thought is we do what we do and keep plugging away. Again just my thoughts but what are yours?”

“Yep. Agreed. Going to get worse,” Fritz replied. “We put Selber and Brendan off the record for this to make clear our office’s narrow role here with GVTF & that we are trying to be the adult in the room working w all of them. Reporters get it. We just need to keep walking the line.”

The AG’s office says the off-the-record call was meant to clarify its role in the task force, something that can be confusing to readers since it only includes Philadelphia. But the fact that the office didn’t want to speak on the record with Inquirer reporters suggests that it didn’t want to be sourced to whatever information it provided on the call.

In response to questions about the stories and the paper’s interactions with Shapiro’s office, Inquirer editor David Lee Preston wrote in an email that the three stories “reflect our ongoing commitment to thorough and fair coverage. I am not going to give you the standard response of ‘We stand by our reporting.’ We certainly do, but I want to go beyond that to emphasize that our work is done to enlighten and inform the citizenry, and our coverage of gun violence is not motivated by a desire to either build up or to tear down any public official. As I look around me here after 7 p.m., I see reporters hard at work doing their jobs, and I see 23 Pulitzer Prizes on the wall attesting to our standards of journalistic excellence. Adherence to those time-honored standards will bring you closer to the truth than dissecting the details of conversations we did or didn’t have with any government agency in the normal course of our work. Just sayin’.”

In July, following one of the city’s deadliest weekends in recent memory and Inquirer coverage linking the violence to Krasner’s policies, 24 Philadelphia-area academics teaching criminology, sociology, journalism, and communications at institutions including Temple University, Villanova University, Rutgers University, Saint Joseph’s University, and the University of Pennsylvania, signed a letter to the Inquirer editor and staff criticizing the paper’s coverage, saying its recent reporting on shootings in the city stoked “unfounded fear over criminal justice reform.” The letter singled out both the June 21 and June 23 stories that appeared in the Inquirer after a call with Shapiro’s staff as particularly egregious, along with another earlier story from June 17.

“Inquirer reporters have drawn a line from Krasner’s policies to gun violence with little factual support,” the letter reads. “Local journalism provides the framework through which people assess whether their communities are safe and their justice system is fair. Reporters should state facts accurately and provide the public with sufficient context from which to draw informed conclusions. That often requires using evidence and data to dispel, and not exacerbate, fear-driven narratives around crime, especially those that emerge soon after violence like Philadelphia recently experienced. But several recent Inquirer stories do not provide that necessary context. Instead, they uncritically repeat criticisms of Krasner, strain to connect his policies on bail and drug reform to a spike in shootings over a single weekend, and bury facts, in order to drive home the false narrative of a Philadelphia that is getting less safe thanks to criminal justice reform policies — especially those that District Attorney Larry Krasner was elected to enact.”

Update: October 8, 2019
Gabriel Escobar, the Inquirer’s editor and vice president, added additional comment:

We have written  scores of stories on the district attorney and we have reported that his policies have strong advocates and equally strong detractors, locally and nationally. That this dynamic produces tension and disagreement within law enforcement is not a surprise, nor should it be a surprise that interested parties for each routinely reach out to reporters to air grievances or claim successes. But to impugn or question our reporting by using emails from people with a vested interest in spinning a narrative – and in the process showing their boss they are doing their jobs —  is wrong and a gross disservice to our journalism. If you want to see the quality of our reporting on this subject, read the full coverage and not a small handful of stories selectively  assembled to support one side in an impassioned debate.
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