PA’s other convicted Attorney General spills prison secrets

Kathleen Kane, meet Ernie Preate, who started a 10-month jail term back in 1996.

There’s a name that’s followed Kathleen Kane around over the last year, as she’s gone from indicted to convicted to sentenced to at least 10 months behind bars: Ernie Preate.

Preate, a Wharton and Penn Law grad who has spent most of his career in Scranton, was Pennsylvania’s attorney general from 1989 to 1995. His second term was cut short because of a conviction on mail fraud that sent him to prison for a year in 1996. The federal charges stemmed from the improper reporting of campaign cash from video poker operators in 1988.  

Like Kane, Preate was believed to be a candidate for higher office. He might even have defeated Tom Ridge in the primary for governor in 1992 if rumors about the charges weren’t already swirling.     

But Preate says the similarities between him and Kane are minimal. Their crimes are completely different and so are the punishments. Preate, who pleaded guilty, went to a federal prison in Duluth, Minn. Kane will be spending time in county jail. He didn’t have much to share as far as advice for her — “accept responsibility” —  but he did have some stories to tell.

When Preate entered prison, he was a straight-up law-and-order prosecutor who’d put five people on death row. Now he often represents prisoners. Preate, 75, lobbied for DNA testing for state prisoners and better care for mentally ill prisoners and has served on boards and in advisory roles for many committees and groups pushing for prison reform.

Billy Penn caught up with Preate to ask about his time in prison and how he’s redeemed himself and continued practicing law since. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your living environment like in prison?

It was 750 men. I had three roommates in my little cubicle area. All were drug dealers.

And they all knew you had been a prosecutor, I take it?

They did know that because it was on the TV and radio shows and talk shows in Duluth and in the newspaper. The general population knew I was coming. The prison personnel knew I was coming. I accepted that. I had nobody who gave me any special protection or anything like that.

Did it even seem like real life, like when you went in for the first day?

I served 13 months in Vietnam and that didn’t seem real either. I accepted it. I learned to cope. I just didn’t whine. I just didn’t go and hide. I did what they told me to do, the administration, and complied with the rules. Eventually people came around.

How’d that happen?

One of my roommates, for example, was fighting to get out of jail and he asked me to look at his situation. So I drafted a petition for him and sent it out to the public defender’s office in Minneapolis, and the public defender’s office filed it. Thirty days later the judge released him. So I became a big hit in the compound. Everybody wanted me to do their petitions. Like I said I didn’t ask for any favors, and I didn’t get any favors. I didn’t whine. I just did what I was supposed to do.

I eventually became coach of the prison softball team, which is a pretty high honor. I didn’t ask for any soft job. I worked in the food service and in the kitchen washing dishes — pots and pans. It’s pretty tough work.

When I left, the inmates had grown to like and respect me. They actually gave me a party. The night before I left, 23 inmates. The Mexicans cooked up some beans and tortillas and somebody else did some tuna fish or chicken or something like that out of can and we had some soda that we bought. Had a lot of pictures taken.

So I was very blessed. I had earned the respect of people many of whom 12 months earlier wouldn’t even talk to me.

One of the things I learned was that our justice system is not treating people fairly and equally. I’ve talked about this now for 20 years. We over-incarcerate people of color. We make it harder for them to get bail, harder to get plea bargains. People who are white don’t get nowhere near the length of sentences they get.

And some of your legal work has focused on helping prisoners. What’s a memorable example of a case?

Last year, in 2015, I won an acquittal of one of the men that was charged by the Department of Corrections as part of the Dallas Six who had been accused of inciting a riot in a prison in Dallas (Pa.). After a several day trial, Lisa Gelb, the judge in Wilkes Barre, acquitted him of inciting a riot, which is fabulous. That was a person of color I represented. I was able to use the Department of Corrections’ own videotape of the time against them.

Would you have ever taken a case like that or stood up for prison reform had you never gone to prison?

No I don’t think so. I was the quintessential prosecutor. I was teaching people how to prosecute death penalty cases all over America. I argued the Pennsylvania death penalty statute in front of the Supreme Court in 1989. That still exists today because of an argument I made in 1989, a 5-4 decision. That was me. Now I’m against the death penalty. I just don’t think it’s being administered fairly.  

So I really am blessed with the second chance I’ve been given to be a lawyer. And I’m grateful.

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