With the change in presidents, one of the key moves by the Obama administration regarding the Justice Department will be to fill the 93 U.S. attorney posts nationwide, including one in Philadelphia.
The selection process hasn't received much attention given the focus in Washington on the stimulus and bailout measures, but there is much jockeying behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, politics often play a big role in who gets nominated for these coveted U.S. attorney posts. But that doesn't mean the job should go to a political hack.
To understand how important it is for Philadelphia to have a strong and independent U.S. attorney who is not afraid to investigate sacred cows, one needs only to peek inside the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets, where the lengthy criminal trial of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo is nearing an end.
Federal prosecutors spent years building a detailed case against Fumo, perhaps the most powerful politician in Pennsylvania over the last three decades.
Fumo was indicted while Patrick Meehan was the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. Meehan, who resigned last year and is mulling a run for governor, distinguished the Philadelphia office by taking on political corruption.
In addition to Fumo, Meehan's office launched an investigation that led to the bugging of former Mayor John F. Street's City Hall office. Street was never charged, but his treasurer was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Several other Street allies were also convicted.
Former City Councilman Rick Mariano was convicted in 2006 on unrelated corruption charges and is serving a 61/2-year sentence. Federal prosecutors continue to investigate powerful electricians' union boss John Dougherty.
The high-profile cases helped expose a long-accepted culture of pay-to-play politics in Philadelphia and pave the way for the election of Mayor Nutter, who has promised to reform city government and make it more transparent.
Ultimately, the president nominates U.S. attorneys, but U.S. senators oversee the selection process for the posts in their states. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey, as the Democrat with close ties to Obama, is in the driver's seat. But Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, will likely have some input as well.
It was Specter who backed Meehan for the job. After Meehan resigned, Laurie Magid, a career prosecutor, was named acting U.S. attorney. She is more than capable of continuing to fill the post.
District Attorney Lynne Abraham has been touting herself in public for the job, which is often considered bad form. More troubling, however, is that as district attorney, Abraham has consistently avoided high-profile cases involving public officials, citing conflicts of interest due to political ties.
Such conflicts could pose a huge hurdle for Abraham as Philadelphia's top federal prosecutor. Her deep political connections could also dissuade line prosecutors from pursuing political corruption cases for fear their boss may not embrace such efforts.
Scaling back on political-corruption investigations would undercut the deterrence factor the U.S. Attorney's Office has created as a result of its recent string of high-profile cases.
Other names have surfaced for the job, including Temple Law School Dean JoAnne A. Epps; James Eisenhower, a lawyer who has twice run for attorney general; former city solicitor Kenneth I. Trujillo; and Geoff Moulton, a professor at Widener Law School and former first assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia.
The bottom line: The next U.S. attorney in Philadelphia must be fair, independent, and fearless. It's not a job for conflicted pols.