In what he called an increased emphasis on government-corruption cases, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced Thursday the hiring of the lead state prosecutor in the "Bonusgate" scandal, which brought down more than 20 people including six Pennsylvania legislators.
Patrick Blessington, 52, until Wednesday a senior deputy attorney general, was introduced by Williams as his chief of special investigations.
"There is no question that Mr. Blessington has the abilities, the temperament, and the accomplishments to serve as our chief corruption prosecutor," Williams said. "I've asked him to investigate corruption wherever it may go and wherever it may lead us."
The naming of Blessington to the unit that runs the city prosecutor's grand jury probes came with a series of shifts among Williams' top administrators.
Williams also announced that First Assistant District Attorney Joseph E. McGettigan had taken a leave of absence to undergo long-delayed hand and knee surgery.
Williams praised McGettigan, telling reporters: "I have accomplished more in the first 17 months than I thought was possible for us to accomplish in an entire administration of four years. And I owe a lot of that in part to Joe McGettigan."
But Williams spent most of his words about his former right-hand man disputing a Philadelphia Daily News article Thursday that said McGettigan had quit after a series of heated policy disputes with him.
Williams also disputed an allegation in the article that McGettigan and other prosecutors were upset about "questionable hires."
Court system sources said only one recently hired prosecutor had been fired - despite good references - after prosecutors learned she was a character witness for the defendant in a child-abuse case.
"I'm sure that in every decision I made here, there is probably a handful of people that disagree," Williams said. "I live with a wife, a mother, and three daughters. I don't think anybody agrees with me in my home. I come to work so that maybe two people will agree with me."
McGettigan, 62, a former prosecutor in Delaware County and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, did not respond to requests for comment.
Williams maintained that McGettigan was on medical leave and that it was possible he would return after his rehab.
Williams named Deputy District Attorney Edward McCann, 48, a veteran homicide prosecutor whom Williams promoted to the chief of the trial division, as acting first assistant district attorney.
Williams and McGettigan met years ago when both were young prosecutors. Williams picked McGettigan for first assistant after he took office in 2010.
People who know both say they are not surprised Williams and McGettigan might have difficulties in a boss-administrator relationship.
"I thought he was a good choice for the job," said Center City defense lawyer Jack McMahon, who worked with Williams and McGettigan in the District Attorney's Office years ago.
Still, McMahon said, "I've stayed in touch with Joe, and I know he was frustrated with some things. Joe is not a politician, and some things are political in that office."
McMahon, who said he had not spoken to McGettigan in about two weeks, said he thought some intra-office dispute simply "became the straw that broke the camel's back. Joe moves quickly. He probably just said, 'I'm not doing this anymore.' He a principled guy."
Williams suggested that the impact of administrative changes was overblown: "I don't think many people care who the D.A. is, even who the first assistant is. I think Philadelphians are really concerned that their kids can't go outside without the fear of gun violence."
Though Thursday's news conference was about Blessington, Blessington proved a man of few words.
He thanked Williams "for giving me the opportunity to return home. . . . I really look forward to serving the district attorney and the citizens of this city again."
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office said that Blessington would be missed but that his departure would have no effect on coming Bonusgate trials, including of former House Speaker John M. Perzel and former House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese.
"He was a key part of our major investigations," spokesman Nils Frederiksen said. "But we have any number of veteran prosecutors to step in, and we'll continue to move forward."
The Bonusgate probe, launched in 2007 by Attorney General Tom Corbett, has examined the use of millions in public money to pay legislative staffers for campaign activities.
Like many of Williams' top hires, Blessington is no stranger to the office. He joined it in 1986 after graduating from Villanova Law School and rose to chief of the juvenile unit.
In 1997, Blessington left to join the Attorney General's Office, where he was a senior deputy attorney general.
Blessington replaces a veteran of more than 20 years in the District Attorney's Office, Christopher Diviny, who on Monday will join the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, where he will focus of economic crimes.
Blessington will report directly to former federal prosecutor Curtis Douglas, whom Williams hired and named deputy for investigations.
Williams said Blessington would also oversee a new corruption prosecution task force.
Williams said he believed many Philadelphians felt the office had focused too much on violent street crime.
"We have to pay attention to crime in the suites as well, not just those on the streets," Williams said. "There are Philadelphians who feel that we're only focusing on Pookie and Man-Man selling crack on the street corner while people are stealing millions, where people are abusing people or people are using their badges to do things that are inappropriate."