Philly City Councilwomen demand DA fire those implicated in ‘porngate’

 Cindy Bass joins other female City Council members and representatives of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women to call for the firing of three city prosecutors who traded pornographic emails while working for the state Attorney General. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Cindy Bass joins other female City Council members and representatives of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women to call for the firing of three city prosecutors who traded pornographic emails while working for the state Attorney General. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s five City Councilwomen and a women’s advocacy group are trying to pressure District Attorney Seth Williams to fire three prosecutors over their involvement in the “porngate” email scandal. 

At a press conference Thursday morning, the councilwomen released a resolution denouncing “the demeaning, misogynistic and racist emails sent on state-owned computers.”

The targets of their ire are Frank Fina, Marc Costanzo and Patrick Blessington who now work for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. An investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane uncovered emails including pornographic and racist images circulated among state prosecutors and judges before Kane took office. An August court filing revealed some emails Fina, Costanzo and Blessington sent and received when they worked for the state Attorney General’s office several years ago. One email sent by Fina referred to motivational tools for employees and included photographs of women performing various sex acts.

“We find this conduct completely outrageous and we are calling on our District Attorney…we are asking him that he terminate these employees immediately,” said councilwoman Cindy Bass.

Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, and Blondell Reynolds Brown were also present, along with members of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Councilwoman Marian Tasco signed the resolution, but did not attend the press conference.

Quinones-Sanchez questioned the prosecutors’ ability to work with victims of sex crimes given the nature of the emails.

“We can’t have people who make judgment calls on our children, on our women to think that this is OK and to think that a sensitivity course is sufficient to address what has come a hostile situation for women,” she said.

The press conference came more than two months after Williams issued a press release late on the Friday before Labor Day weekend announcing the three prosecutors would receive sensitivity training. Bass said she and others on council attempted to reach out to Williams before taking their complaints public.

“Clearly we’ve been disappointed that we haven’t had any action,” Bass said.

Williams’ spokesman did not respond to multiple requests about whether Fina, Costanzo and Blessington have received the sensitivity training. In a statement, the district attorney defended his handling of the matter.

“While I appreciate and understand the concerns of the city councilwomen and NOW over the content of the emails, I have reviewed this matter and the individuals involved have been disciplined,” Williams said. “Additionally, I have reached out to NOW on multiple occasions to sit down and discuss this matter in greater detail and to date they have refused.”

Philadelphia-NOW president Nina Ahmad said Williams twice sent her text messages following a phone conversation they had the day he announced the sensitivity training.

The second time, “I texted back saying your words and actions speak loudly for us,” said Ahmad, who is concerned about the “cozy” relationship between prosecutors and judges revealed by the porngate scandal.

However, Ahmad said the organization is not weighing in on the cases of other officials, including state Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin, who were also involved in pornographic email traffic. 

“We are agnostic to all of that,” said Ahmad, noting the group is solely focusing on Philadelphia piece of the scandal. 

The emails were uncovered after state Attorney General Kathleen Kane ordered a review of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse investigation. Kane now faces criminal charges for allegedly leaking secret grand jury materials to embarrass Fina, whom she blamed for an unflattering story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Ahmad said Philadelphia NOW is not defending Kane. 

“That [issue] has its own life,” she said. 

But Councilwoman Bass acknowledged the role Kane played in bringing the emails to light. 

“No matter what people may feel about Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the fact of the matter is if she had not uncovered this information and made it public, this would have been swept under the rug and we wouldn’t know nothing about it,” she said. 

In a similar vein, several of the councilwomen — all Democrats — declined to speculate about what today’s action could mean for the political future of Williams, also a Democrat.

Philadelphia-NOW is circulating an online petition, hoping to put more pressure on Williams to fire the three prosecutors. 

Two of them, Fina and Costanzo filed suit Thursday against Kane, the Philadelphia Daily News for defamation as a result of retaliation. 

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