The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General hit a nadir in 2016.
Months of investigation and political fighting culminated with the conviction of Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, on charges of felony perjury and other misdemeanors. A new AG, Bruce Beemer, was appointed to finish out the final few months of the year.
It created concern and embarrassment within the department.
That was the environment Josh Shapiro, also a Democrat, entered when he took over the top position in January after winning election in November.
“I inherited a mess and I inherited some serious challenges,” said Shapiro during an interview at The Tribune-Democrat on Wednesday.
The scandal not only sullied the office’s reputation and hurt morale, but it made performing law enforcement duties difficult because of how police departments and other organizations perceived the office, according to Shapiro. “It’s not just about people feeling good at work,” he said. “There is a practical effect for the public when our office is functioning effectively.”
He immediately started out trying to repair the damage, which included asking personnel to voluntarily sign a new code of conduct.
“I’m proud to tell you – that with one email and no arm twisting or anything like that – within one week, 100 percent of our staff signed the new code of conduct, which is them committing themselves to each other and to the public to make their decisions rooted in integrity,” Shapiro said.
He instituted mandatory ethics training.
Also, opposed to replacing only a few top aides, as is common during a transition, Shapiro said he brought in 40 to 50 new upper-level personnel members, including hiring a chief integrity officer to be consulted on legal and administrative matters.
“I did that not because you make change for change sake, but because I really had a new vision for this office, and I wanted to bring in the most talented, dedicated, ethical, diverse, and honest people in the state to do this work, and also to make sure that we work together with the existing folks in the office, who I have to say do an extraordinary job day in and day out,” Shapiro said.
Along with repairing the office’s image, Shapiro said he has emphasized taking on what he calls “the big fights” against powerful institutions, including joining 20 other attorneys general in asking the U.S. Department of Education to not revoke protections for citizens who take out student loans.
“Oftentimes, you have to go after the big, powerful interests,” Shapiro said. “In this case, student loan institutions are powerful interests. What I see is the Trump administration rolling back protections for those with student loans. I think that’s something that we need to stand up and speak out about. Similarly, I do everything I can to stop scams. And we’ve had a number of arrests in that area. (We need to) make sure that seniors, students, everybody are protected from these entities that try to scam people out of money.”