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Former Clinton special counsel’s spin skills put to test with Pa. AG Kane

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Lanny Davis, attorney for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, holds a news conference Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, at the Hotel Monaco, where he insisted that his client is being railroaded and that claims that she illegally leaked grand jury documents to the Philadelphia Daily news are incorrect and unfounded.
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Lanny Davis, attorney for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane talks to members of the media during a news conference on Saturday Jan. 10, 2015, in Philadelphia.
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Lanny Davis, attorney for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, leavesa news conference Saturday Jan. 10, 2015, in Philadelphia.

HARRISBURG — Lanny Davis is as accustomed to tight spots as he is to the spotlight.

The Washington lawyer stepping up for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who is under criminal investigation, has handled big-name clients as a spin doctor and crisis communications manager. He’s an author, TV commentator and politician.

“Lanny is a force of nature, and he loves getting in the middle of difficult issues,” said Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, for whom Davis was special counsel.

When White House scandals arose, causing conflict between the lawyers and the communications staff, “he straddled that superbly,” said McCurry. “He did so because he had a foot in both camps. He also knew politics inside out.”

Some people in government, particularly those in tight spots, have a tendency to “get in the bunker and hide,” McCurry said. But Davis “is a great proponent of the opposite.”

Davis, 69, strokes or cajoles reporters, depending on the circumstances.

“He has a reputation for being pugnacious,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh Democratic consultant who helped with Gov.-elect Tom Wolf’s campaign.

Davis helped Penn State University weather the scandal of pedophile Jerry Sandusky’s arrest. He has represented New York Yankees All-Star Alex Rodriguez; businesswoman Martha Stewart, who went to prison on charges related to insider trading; a cruise line that lost a passenger; an African dictator, which earned Davis praise from Archbishop Desmond Tutu for helping Equatorial Guinea to move toward human rights and democracy; and Clinton, whose wife developed a friendship with Davis during their years at Yale Law School.

If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, Davis told the Tribune-Review, he will provide whatever she needs.

“I’m a friend,” he said. “I don’t want a title. I don’t want to be paid.”

‘Phenomenal public relations’

His work for the Clinton White House, primarily as “scandal spokesman” on campaign finance issues, led to one of Davis’ three books — “Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It Yourself: Notes from My White House Education.” He was there when the Monica Lewinsky story broke; he continued to defend Clinton when he left office.

That could help with his work for Kane, whose career as the state’s top law enforcement officer could unravel if a grand jury in Norristown has recommended criminal charges against her, as The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The newspaper said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman will decide whether to press charges of perjury and contempt of court against Kane for leaking secret grand jury material to the Philadelphia Daily News to embarrass a former state prosecutor and political foe.

Davis “was very valuable to Clinton,” said Tom Squitieri, a former reporter for USA Today who grew up in Lower Burrell.

“I don’t think he ever lied. I think things he told you were truthful. He never told us the full story because some of the story would be harmful to his client,” said Squitieri, vice president of Qorvis MSL, a Washington public relations firm.

Davis gathered reporters for a Jan. 10 news conference in Philadelphia in defense of Kane, promising, “I’m going to lay the whole thing out,” though he acknowledged he would not name names.

Before stepping to the podium, he worked the room like a political pro, smiling and shaking hands. A former member of the Democratic National Committee from Maryland, Davis was an unsuccessful congressional candidate in 1974 and 1976.

“The thing is he combines a thorough knowledge of the law with phenomenal public relations capability,” said Mikus. “(Kane’s) situation is as much political as legal. … It’s a good investment on Kathleen Kane’s part, for sure.”

No charge to taxpayers

Davis used a variation of a successful Democrat theme — the “War on Women” — by suggesting Kane is being punished for going after the “old boys’ network” in Harrisburg, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a Widener University political science professor.

Davis “made a case” that Kane should not resign if charged with crimes, Leckrone said.

Though Davis won’t disclose his fees, “she’s paying him a lot to spin for her,” said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg media consultant with Republican ties who is “not sure he has enhanced her position.”

Portraying Kane as a victim of unnamed Republicans trying to “railroad” her partly on grounds of gender seems to contradict that “her wounds are almost exclusively self-inflicted,” Gerow said.

He directs his cynicism toward Davis’ client, not him.

“I think he was dealt a very unfortunate hand,” Gerow said. “He’s a very articulate and eloquent man.”

Davis’ firm said Kane is not charging taxpayers for his fees.

University records show that when it represented Penn State in the Sandusky case, Davis’ firm was among nine named law firms — and a 10th listing identified as “others” — collectively paid more than $17 million.

To soothe Pennsylvania reporters miffed by stories apparently pitched to The New York Times, Davis brought the locals into a State College conference room for carefully choreographed meetings with university trustees.

Clintons to the rescue?

Davis thinks of himself as a “Jersey boy.” A Jersey City native, he believes he has to work harder than the next person to gain a step.

He stayed up all night, he told the Trib, like studying for a final exam, before the Kane news conference. She did not attend.

During her 2012 campaign, Kane welcomed Bill Clinton’s support before the Democratic primary.

To Leckrone, Davis’ work for Kane may indicate the “Clintons are coming to the rescue.” In a recent staff realignment, Kane brought in top staffers from the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office, an office Bill Clinton held before he was Arkansas governor.

In his “Truth to Tell” book, Davis recalls a conversation he had with McCurry, Clinton’s press secretary, two days after joining the White House in December 1996.

They discussed how “spinning” a story is “not about turning bad news into good news,” Davis wrote. “Good spinning aims to minimize the damage. Bad spinning is essentially a strategy of deception.”

Said Mikus: “I wouldn’t want to go toe-to-toe with him.”

Staff writer Debra Erdley contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].

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