After nearly four months on the job, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain has concluded that the nine-county region of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania needs more—of just about everything.
In an interview with The Legal, McSwain said more new hires, more prosecutions, more cooperation with the media, and the creation of new units are all part of his plan to dial up the office’s productivity and boost its public profile.
A Chester County native with previous experience as a federal prosecutor and a Marine Corps officer, McSwain was appointed by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in March.
The office receives its marching orders from the Department of Justice in Washington; prosecuting violent crime, stemming the opioid epidemic, and enforcing immigration laws are all national imperatives that McSwain has vowed to carry out. But he also has local priorities specific to this region, such as public corruption and white-collar cases, that will receive significant attention from the office.
“We want to have an impact on our community,” he said.
To do that, McSwain said he wants to bring more prosecutions in general, setting office benchmarks for types of cases to be brought, although he declined to give specific numbers. But he was clear that what he calls “impact cases,” such as those involving big-name defendants like politicians or other highly visible figures, are a priority.
It is not a stretch to say McSwain is likely to prosecute a prominent Philadelphia Democrat or two during his tenure at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, if recent history is any indicator: ex-Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, ex-Congressman Chaka Fattah, and the judges of Philadelphia Traffic Court (with the exception of Mark Bruno, who was defended by McSwain himself in 2014) were found guilty of corruption charges.
As a Republican, and an appointee of Trump—who frequently targets Democrats with personal attacks—McSwain has to avoid looking political in these cases.
“Politics should play no role in the day-to-day operation of this office overall,” McSwain said. “It never has and it never will.”
He added, “We’re an office that is responsible for a nine-county district … you have a variety of political situations in the nine different counties. We’re not targeting one single county for political corruption cases.”
“But, that all being said, I think the fact is where you find corruption to be rife is where the temptations exist and where the circumstances exist for it to grow,” he continued, “and that is usually where you have a lack of political competition, whether it’s the Republicans or the Democrats. People in positions of power tend to feel a sense of entitlement.”
Combating Crime and Revamping Civil Enforcement
A major step McSwain has taken to fulfill his goal of bringing more cases is the creation of two new units within the office: the General Crimes Unit and the Affirmative Civil Enforcement (ACE) Strike Force.
The General Crimes Unit is to be staffed with newcomers to the department and will focus on smaller prosecutions to give fresh-faced assistant U.S. attorneys experience handling cases for one to two years before moving to more senior units. McSwain said he expects to hire 10 new recruits to fill out the ranks of the General Crimes Unit.
“This will free up the more senior prosecutors to focus on the impact cases,” McSwain said.
Districts in New York City, Chicago, and New Jersey have similar units, but it is a first for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Prosecutors in the General Crimes Unit will focus on violent crime, small-time drug cases, child exploitation, bank robbery and immigration cases.
McSwain is also devoting five prosecutors to ACE, which focuses on enforcing federal civil laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, and defending the government in lawsuits.
While five may not seem like a lot, McSwain said the assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to ACE will focus on nothing else but civil matters brought by the government, whereas before they handled mixed caseloads including defensive cases.
But where will all these new cases come from?
McSwain said he is “opening the pipeline” between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and partners in other federal agencies and local law enforcement organizations to spur more activity. He’s also throwing away certain qualifiers that used to be in place to limit the types of cases the U.S. Attorney’s Office could get involved in, such as, for example, the amount of money lost in a fraud case.
“We do have to be smart about how we use our resources,” McSwain said, ” … but we’re encouraging our partners to bring us everything they’ve got.”
However, one of the most important partners McSwain could have, Mayor Jim Kenney, may not be willing to participate on a significant level. On July 27, Kenney announced he would not renew the city’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allows the agency access to the PARS law enforcement database.
ICE uses PARS to find and deport undocumented immigrants.
McSwain had little to say about the development.
“ We’re studying it and trying to understand the whole situation,” he said.
Increased Media Exposure
Trump’s administration may be more hostile toward the American media than any in the nation’s history. He has publicly stated that news organizations are “the enemy of the American people.”
It is ironic then that one of his appointees has chosen to depart from the administration’s stance and embrace and encourage interaction with the press.
“It’s important because it’s consistent with transparency,” McSwain said. “The taxpayers have a right to know what we’re doing on a daily basis.”
McSwain said that federal prosecutors’ offices often maintain an “unnecessary cloak of mystery,” which goes against their duty to remain accountable to the public.
His approach to raising the public profile of the office is two-fold, the first being more communication with media. “The media is the conduit between the office’s work and the average citizen.”
And the second is through the office itself. Recently, the office reactivated its long dormant Twitter account, with McSwain and the office spokeswoman creating accounts of their own to get the word out about the doings of the office.
Increased exposure also brings more high-profile cases to the Eastern District, McSwain noted.
“We’re also trying to raise our profile with our agency partners and Main Justice, because when the folks in Washington know what’s happening in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, we tend to work on more significant cases,” he said.