Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Christopher Abruzzo, along with the agency’s top attorney, resigned on Thursday following a rapidly unfolding scandal involving sexually explicit emails that were exchanged among dozens of former and current staffers in the state attorney general’s office.

Abruzzo and DEP Deputy Counsel Glenn Parno stepped down one week after reporters were allowed to review a trove of pornographic emails, including pictures and videos of women engaged in sexual acts, that were released by Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office. Those emails were exchanged between 2008 and 2012 during a period when Republican Gov. Tom Corbett served as attorney general.

The resignations are the first in what quickly has become a media firestorm in the state. They were issued on a day when Kane reportedly released boxes of redacted emails that Corbett had requested to vet in relation to allegations against his former staffers and others.

Abruzzo and Parno were among six other high-ranking state officials who were named in the email exchange, with dozens of other anonymous low-level staffers involved as well. Although Abruzzo and Parno are said to have received, opened and made racy comments about their subject matter, others, such as state police Commissioner Frank Noonan, only received but did not open those emails.

Corbett, who has maintained he was unaware of the email exchanges, is facing pressure from the scandal just weeks before he will face-off against Democratic candidate Tom Wolf in the gubernatorial election. Corbett is trailing wolf by 20 percentage points, according to two polls recently released by Robert Morris University and Franklin & Marshall College.

That has had some in the oil and gas industry on edge as Wolf has pledged to implement a severance tax on Marcellus Shale production and raise other unspecified revenues from the industry (see Shale Daily, May 21).

Abruzzo, who worked as acting DEP secretary until his confirmation in December (see Shale Daily, Dec. 11, 2013), said in a letter addressed to Corbett that he no longer wanted to burden the administration with distraction.

“Although I have not been afforded any opportunity by the attorney general to review any files supporting the public assertions against me, it is my concern that these assertions have become a distraction from the great record of this administration,” he wrote. “While I have no recollection of the specific accounts described by the media, I accept full responsibility for any lack of judgement I may have exhibited in 2009. I do not condone that behavior and it is not a reflection of the person or professional that I am.”

The emails were discovered by Kane’s staff during an investigation of Jerry Sandusky, the long-time assistant football coach at Penn State University who was convicted of sexually abusing young boys. Although the emails were unrelated to that case, several open records requests from newspapers across the state forced a judge to lift a seal on them and prompted Kane’s office to release them.

In one exchange, according to media outlets permitted to view the material, Abruzzo opened an email called “Which One is Blonde” and replied to others, including Corbett’s former press secretary, “yummy.”

“As I have said, I do not condone or tolerate comments or behavior degrading to individuals, written or otherwise,” Corbett said in a statement after accepting the resignations. “This type of activity does not belong in the workplace and I find it inexcusable. I call upon the attorney general to release to the public, in a complete and unbiased manner, all of the information on all individuals associated with this issue.”

Abruzzo’s time at the DEP, the state’s chief oil and gas regulatory agency, was marked by turbulence. After a period of relative calm, the agency has faced repeated claims this year that it is not doing enough to protect drinking water from unconventional oil and gas operations, while a a state auditor general’s report in July blasted DEP regulatory procedures as inadequate (see Shale Daily, July 22a; July 22b). Abruzzo also oversaw response efforts after what was called one of the worst oil and gas disasters in the state’s modern history, when a Chevron Appalachia LLC well caught fire, exploded, killed one worker and burned for days (see Shale Daily, Feb. 11).

Prior to taking the helm at the DEP, Abruzzo worked as deputy chief of staff for Corbett and also served as chief deputy attorney under Corbett when he was attorney general. DEP Executive Deputy Secretary Dana Aunkst will serve as Abruzzo’s replacement.