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Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner pushes back on critics of his ‘war criminals’ joke

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the Nazi analogy is a joke about former prosecutors going to work for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Krasner's critics don't think it's funny.

File photos: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (left), Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner
File photos: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (left), Philadelphia District Attorney Larry KrasnerRead moreStaff File Photos

He never said “Nazis.”

That is the essence of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s defense, presented to the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia, for sharing a joke his staffers tell, referring to some former city prosecutors who left or were fired when he took office as “war criminals.”

As the joke goes, Krasner explained in Friday’s “Philly Clout” column in The Inquirer, those prosecutors hired by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro are said to have fled to “Paraguay,” a reference to one of the South American countries where Nazis took refuge after World War II.

“I agree that referencing the Nazis or the Holocaust should be done with sensitivity and thought,” Krasner wrote Tuesday in a letter to Nancy Baron-Baer, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director in Philadelphia, responding to criticism in a letter she sent him Monday.

Krasner wrote, accurately, that he never said “Nazis” in his interview with The Inquirer, and continued his criticism of past “prosecutorial misconduct” that was central to his 2017 campaign and his policies since taking office. Krasner also wrote that such misconduct “is unconstitutional and atrocious, as are war crimes.”

“Unfortunately, we are frequently undermined by the state Attorney General’s Office, and sometimes by the very people implicated in this misconduct who left the Philadelphia DAO to join the office of the AG,” Krasner wrote.

Baron-Baer, in her letter to Krasner, expressed “our disappointment in your recent use of a Holocaust analogy” to describe Shapiro’s staff. Baron-Baer said she was reacting to complaints received by her office about Krasner’s comments and a concern that they could “trivialize the Holocaust.”

“These comments, particularly when made in jest, also demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to this unique tragedy in human history,” she wrote.

Some prominent figures in Philadelphia’s legal community have contacted The Inquirer since the column ran to offer support for Shapiro and his staff along with condemnation of Krasner’s comments.

The attorney general decries ‘hateful speech’ to his staff

Shapiro, in an email sent to his staff Friday afternoon, wrote that he is “incredibly proud” of the staff of “committed, talented prosecutors” with “the highest level of integrity.”

“The hateful speech used and tolerated by the Philadelphia District Attorney and directed at you in this morning’s newspaper is reprehensible,” he wrote in the email, obtained by The Inquirer. “There is no place for comments like this in our society, let alone in a fellow law enforcement office.”

Shapiro’s former law firm weighs in

Bill Sasso, chairman of the politically prominent law firm Stradley Ronon, wrote to The Inquirer on Friday that Krasner’s joke about war criminals “must be condemned.”

“He also makes reference to these hardworking public servants, in a thinly veiled manner, as Nazis,” Sasso wrote. “It adds insult to injury that he states that these loyal public servants ‘fled’ to the Attorney General’s Office, when in fact some of them were fired by the district attorney given his lack of tolerance for opposing points of view.”

Shapiro was of counsel at the firm before being elected attorney general in 2016.

Another law firm leader concerned about ‘buzzwords’

Stephen Cozen, chairman of the law firm Cozen O’Connor, said he is “not a proponent of political correctness, but I am sensitive to certain buzzwords which can only be meant to hurt or to convey distasteful images.”

Cozen, who chairs the Board of Councilors of the Los Angeles-based USC Shoah Foundation, a Holocaust-documentation organization, said Krasner’s comments were disturbing.

“We cannot take lightly Holocaust-related buzzwords, whether intended or not,” Cozen wrote in an email. “Larry needs to be considerably more careful in the future before he attributes those terms to folks who have good reputations as professionals.”

A senior judge finds it ‘hard to believe’

Ben Lerner, a senior judge in the Court of Common Pleas, said he finds it “hard to believe” that staffers in the District Attorney’s Office were joking about war criminals.

“Sadly, however, I don’t find it at all surprising that Mr. Krasner would do so,” Lerner wrote to The Inquirer. “After all, this is not the first time he has used his office to trash the reputations of highly skilled, dedicated, and honorable former [assistant district attorneys], some of whom he fired and some of whom left on their own to continue careers devoted to public service."

Lerner, who once led the Defender Association of Philadelphia and served in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, called Krasner’s comments “reckless and cruel.”

A Krasner fan rejects ‘false accusation’

Meanwhile, Mindy Isser, a labor organizer who supported Krasner’s bid for district attorney, pushed back on the criticism.

“As a Jewish person, I find false accusations of anti-Semitism extremely offensive and dangerous, and ultimately I think this situation is just another manifestation of Josh Shapiro’s vendetta against Larry Krasner because he’s made (and will continue to make) so many important changes,” Isser said in a Twitter message.