Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner takes questions from reporters after a press conference in Harrisburg on Friday, 10/21/22. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)
The Pennsylvania House committee looking to impeach Democratic Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner canceled a hearing with the city’s top prosecutor after he requested a public forum.
Krasner still showed up at the state Capitol on Friday morning, condemning the select committee’s investigation and telling reporters that he expects the Republican-controlled chamber will start the impeachment process as early as next week.
“There is no integrity to this process,” Krasner told reporters during a press conference on the Capitol steps. “If there was, then I would join them and help them every step of the way. They would look at the entire state, and they would look at some real solutions and some things that can be done to make it better.”
The House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order, which was formed in June to investigate and review rising crime rates in the state’s largest city, has focused on Krasner’s approach to prosecuting crime in Philadelphia. Last month, the GOP-controlled panel conducted a series of public hearings with live testimony on gun violence.
In September, the House voted 162-38 to hold Krasner in contempt for refusing to respond to a subpoena issued by the GOP-controlled committee.
Krasner, who won re-election last year, agreed to testify before the committee. But there were conditions from the panel, including that the meeting would take place behind closed doors without a public live stream or audio recordings. While the committee would have a copy of the testimony, Krasner said he could not make a copy.
“The ground rules they were trying to set were Star Chamber ground rules. You come in here. Answer our questions,” he said. “You get no record of what you said or what we asked you, which, of course, opens the door for them to say virtually anything about what happened in there and provided me no opportunity whatsoever to establish whether that was accurate or not — never mind out of context.”
Experts on Pennsylvania’s government transparency laws said the select committee’s hearings should be closed only to the extent necessary to comply with the law.
“If you want law and order, there’s got to be transparency and accountability — period point blank,” Terry Mutchler, a lawyer who uses open government laws to help journalists and businesses, said. “And you’re not going to have law and order that people can believe in when it happens behind closed doors.”
Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for House Republicans, did not say whether there are plans to vote on impeachment when the lower chamber returns to session on Monday, telling reporters that “next week will take care of itself.”
“It’s a slap in the face to the people that Larry Krasner’s office should be protecting that he used time and resources from his office to come here today for a media stunt after he refused the goodwill invitation from the select committee to offer his testimony,” Gottesman, who watched the press conference, said.
Gottesman said Krasner can submit a written statement to the House committee but has not done so.
Asked why the select committee opted to hear testimony from Krasner behind closed doors, as opposed to a public forum, Gottesman — citing House Rules and the Sunshine Act — said: “That is the decision of the committee.”
While the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires that public business be conducted in open, publicly-accessible meetings, it does allow for exceptions.
The Legislature, like other agencies, can hold closed sessions when discussing topics that would violate privilege or reveal information about investigations, including probes into crimes.
The select committee has indicated the investigation of a Philadelphia police officer convicted of manslaughter last month, including secret grand jury transcripts, is one of the subjects under examination.
Paula Knudsen Burke, a Pennsylvania-based attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said if Krasner’s testimony was expected to include legally protected information — such as details of grand jury proceedings — the closed session should be limited to that testimony.
Given the intense public interest in the issue of crime in Philadelphia and the potential that it could lead to an elected official being removed from office, the public deserves to have access, Knudsen Burke said.
“It doesn’t make any sense because it is so rare, and it is such an extraordinary step to put it behind closed doors,” Knudsen Burke said.
Krasner noted the committee’s focus on Philadelphia, urging members to look at statewide increases in crime and consider “real solutions” to prevent gun violence. He cited bans on ghost guns, red flag laws, prevention efforts, and universal background checks for firearms and ammunition.
“Pennsylvania municipalities have been begging for real local control that allows them to pass meaningful gun restrictions that the residents want,” he said.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has advanced proposals prohibiting local municipalities from enacting firearm regulations more restrictive than existing law.
Last year, the General Assembly approved legislation allowing concealed carry without a permit, lowering the legal age from 21 to 18, and granting open carry in Philadelphia. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who leaves office in January 2023, vetoed the bill.
“Does that sound to you like people truly invested in the reduction of gun violence? Or does that sound to you like we will do anything, and we will say anything in a super-heated midterm election cycle,” Krasner said.
If the House committee recommends impeachment, the lower chamber votes on whether to proceed. If successful, a trial would take place in the Senate.
Impeachment is rare in Pennsylvania. The last successful impeachment was in 1994, with the House voting to impeach and the Senate convicting Rolf Larsen, a former Supreme Court justice, for improperly discussing court matters.
Krasner said the committee has no legal grounds for impeachment. Instead, he accused the committee of targeting him for his ideas and policies during a “super-heated election cycle” and attempting to blame large and diverse cities as being “lawless.”
“What we see here is the same old playbook, which is about coded and racist messaging,” Krasner said. “It’s about blaming the biggest city in Pennsylvania with the most diverse population for having the same national struggle that we have with gun violence everywhere.”
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