Josh Shapiro

Trista Thurston

The state Senate approved a package of bills related to recommendations made last year by a state grand jury that studied sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, pictured above, helmed the grand jury.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro refused to comment this week on whether his office is conducting a criminal investigation of the natural gas industry and its activities in Washington County and elsewhere.

“I can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of a grand jury,” Shapiro said on a visit to Washington Tuesday.

Media reports earlier this year indicated an investigative grand jury in Pittsburgh was probing potential “environmental crimes” committed by natural gas drillers and that at least one Washington County resident had testified before the grand jury. Shapiro reiterated his view, though, that Pennsylvania residents “have a state constitutional right to clean air and pure water.”

“The reality is that if anyone tries to undermine that, if anyone undermines your clean air or pure water, we are going to hold you accountable,” he added.

As to whether Pennsylvania adequately regulates the natural gas industry, he replied, “It would probably be best if I did not answer that question right now.”

Shapiro’s comments were part of a wide-ranging discussion with the editorial boards of the Herald-Standard and Washington’s Observer-Reporter. The commonwealth’s top law-enforcement officer also talked about his office’s work in combating the opioid epidemic, tackling public corruption, ensuring the rights of consumers and “taking on the big fights.”

For Shapiro that has included the Catholic Church, what he described as “the most powerful organization on the planet.” In 2018, the Democrat was thrust into the national spotlight after his office released a report outlining widespread child sexual abuse within six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania dating back decades. Other states have followed suit, with West Virginia, New Jersey, New York and others launching their own inquiries.

It remains a source of frustration for Shapiro that Pennsylvania has not yet instituted reforms that would remove the criminal statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases, which would then allow victims to bring suit against abusers and institutions that concealed their misdeeds. Bills outlining the reforms both he and Gov. Tom Wolf support were approved in the state House in April but have been stalled in the state Senate.

“I couldn’t be more disappointed in the leadership of the state Senate,” he said. “Seventy or 80% of their members support these reforms, as the House already did. But their leaders won’t bring it up for a vote. Do I believe at the end of the day they’ll bring it up for a vote? Yes. Do I believe it will pass overwhelmingly? Yes.”

The attorney general also underscored his support for Marsy’s Law, which would enshrine the rights of crime victims in the Pennsylvania Constitution. It was backed by 73% of voters across the commonwealth in the Nov. 5 election, but remains in limbo as a result of a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which contends the law is too broad to be a single constitutional amendment.

He explained that Pennsylvania’s victims rights statutes “have been sadly ignored by many district attorneys. There’s no teeth to it. There are no repercussions for a DA that ignores them.”

Shapiro has yet to announce whether he will be seeking re-election next year. A former state representative and Montgomery County commissioner, it’s widely assumed that Shapiro will pursue the governorship in 2022, or perhaps the U.S. Senate seat currently being held by Republican Pat Toomey. Shapiro, however, wouldn’t elaborate on what his plans might be two years from now.

“I’m going to focus on my job,” he said. “My wife and kids will sit down in the next month or so and make a decision about running for re-election. That’s all I’m focused on.”

Shapiro has already drawn at least one opponent should he seek a second term. On Tuesday, Mt. Lebanon lawyer and former Allegheny County Council member Heidi Heidelbaugh announced that she will be seeking the Republican nomination to become attorney general.

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