Bill McSwain was only eight months into his job as Philadelphia’s top federal prosecutor, and he was already angling for a better gig.
It was late 2018 when McSwain told some in his office that he was up for a high-ranking Justice Department post in Washington, staffers recalled. The agency was going through a tumultuous period after President Donald Trump fired Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), McSwain’s political sponsor, told a well-attended December gathering of Pennsylvania political insiders in New York that he would recommend McSwain for a promotion, according to two people who were there.
Within a week, Bill Barr was nominated as attorney general, and it was soon clear to him that McSwain had allies lobbying for his nomination as deputy attorney general, according to a former senior Justice Department official.
McSwain was never seriously considered for the department’s No. 2 job. But the naked campaigning left an impression.
“He had this reputation in the department for being very ambitious, very publicity-seeking,” the former senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to be candid about former colleagues. “Everyone knew what he was doing, which was angling to run for something when he was done.”
Three years later, McSwain is indeed running for something: governor. And the West Chester Republican has put his 2½-year stint as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at the center of his campaign.
In a crowded field, McSwain has positioned himself as the candidate with law enforcement experience at a moment when rising violent crime has become a top concern for GOP primary voters. On the campaign trail, he touts convictions of prominent Democrats like labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon. (McSwain recused himself from overseeing that investigation due to a conflict of interest with his former firm.) He says he “single-handedly stopped Philadelphia from burning to the ground” during the civil unrest that followed the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. (His office charged fewer than a dozen defendants.)
But to many former colleagues, McSwain’s tenure was defined more than anything by the driving ambition that had him seeking a promotion less than a year after he was sworn in.
In interviews, a dozen current and former prosecutors — all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions — said that while McSwain never explicitly said so, it was clear from the start that he had his sights on the next job.
“There was always the impression he was using the position to promote his own career above the mission of the office,” one former assistant U.S. attorney said.
His decision in 2020 to spend $75,000 in taxpayer money to prominently display his face and name on highway billboards for a gun crimes awareness campaign turned heads from Philadelphia to Washington.
“It elicited eye-rolls in the department, but not surprise,” the former senior Justice Department official said.
Several prosecutors described him as so focused on raising his profile and currying favor with GOP officials and voters that it sometimes came into tension with the office’s mission and risked damage to its reputation. The office is run by a political appointee but staffed by career prosecutors charged with administering justice apolitically.
“It was morale-crushing,” one assistant U.S. attorney said. “It made us feel that the mission was no longer the work. The mission was now making [McSwain] look good. And that’s not what any of us signed up for.”
Even those who spoke highly of him agreed he was savvy in using his platform to position himself for elected office.
Sent a detailed list of questions describing the accounts of his former staffers, McSwain’s campaign did not address them. Instead it highlighted his accomplishments and said efforts to raise the office’s visibility were all to deter crime.
“Bill McSwain has a lifelong reputation for integrity and honesty, and has proven that he will always stand up for the people he is sworn to defend,” campaign spokesperson Rachel Tripp said in a statement. “Unlike many career politicians, his professional priorities and motivations are rooted in his desire to serve and protect law-abiding citizens.”
McSwain is hardly the first federal prosecutor to use the job as a political launching pad. Chris Christie cultivated a reputation as New Jersey’s hard-charging U.S. attorney to become governor. Tom Corbett did the same in Pennsylvania, after stints as U.S. attorney and state attorney general. Pat Meehan, the last Republican to hold the Eastern District post before McSwain, followed it with four terms in Congress.
The job has an “inherent attractiveness” to people with political ambitions, said Meehan, who hired McSwain as a line prosecutor in 2003.
In a nine-county region stretching north from Philadelphia to Allentown and west past Reading, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania oversees an office of 130 government lawyers prosecuting political corruption, drug trafficking, cybercrime, and terrorism.
“There’s a benefit in that, oftentimes, you’re seen as being on the right side of the angels, acting on behalf of the interests and protections of the people,” Meehan said. “Just by simply doing the job, there’s a real benefit.”
A Marine platoon commander and graduate of Harvard and Yale, McSwain already had a resumé suited to a future in public office. He was registered to vote as a Democrat until 2004, when he switched parties. He spent almost a dozen years as a partner at the Center City law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath before Trump appointed him U.S. attorney in late 2017.
Prosecutors who worked under both Meehan and McSwain drew distinctions between how their political ambitions affected the office. Meehan, who had been Delaware County’s district attorney, approached the job similarly to his predecessors, they said: He focused on the work and mostly limited public remarks to rote statements about specific cases the office was pursuing.
McSwain’s intention to do things differently became clear right away. One of the goals he laid out in an early speech to staffers — raising the office’s profile — emerged as a top priority.
In one of his first moves, McSwain brought in two attorneys — including a former GOP congressional candidate — to fill new high-level positions on his leadership team. They advised him on broader messaging strategy, beyond the work typically conducted by the office’s public affairs staff.
To make room for their offices, the public corruption unit — which had long held pride of place in working just feet from the top boss’ 12th-floor suite, overlooking Independence Hall — was displaced to another floor, according to former employees.
“It was a small thing,” one of them said. “But in hindsight ... that was symbolic from the very beginning in showing where his priorities were.”
Over the next several months, McSwain showed a penchant for news conferences and national TV interviews — and an impulse to be the pugnacious counterweight to what he described as Philadelphia’s “culture of lawlessness.”
When the office brought a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in 2019 challenging plans for a supervised drug injection site in Philadelphia, McSwain argued the case himself in court — an unusual move for the top prosecutor. He won the case on appeal. In his campaign’s statement to The Inquirer, McSwain called it “most pivotal to the continued health and safety of Pennsylvanians.”
Several current and former prosecutors questioned the decision.
“There are folks in the office who are some of the most preeminent appellate lawyers in the nation,” one said. “And he chose to put himself front and center.”
All the staffers interviewed for this story agreed that McSwain’s attention-seeking never crossed a line into influencing charging decisions. Many said it nevertheless had a corrosive effect.
One prosecutor recalled being grilled by a judge in court over remarks McSwain had made about a case — comments the judge said bordered on trampling the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Where previous U.S. attorneys showed more interest in discussing case strategy with line prosecutors, McSwain’s driving concern, staffers said, appeared to be how quickly an indictment could be secured and announced with a news conference — and what headline might appear on the office’s news release.
“Everything was orchestrated with the press as a No. 1 goal,” one former assistant U.S. attorney said. “It was like a machine — a media industrial complex.”
McSwain seemed to relish the role of bomb-throwing provocateur. And nothing generated more headlines than the bitter public feud McSwain picked with Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whom he derisively refers to as “Uncle Larry.”
At a 2020 event, he likened Krasner and Mayor Jim Kenney to slaveholders and Southern segregationists for their pursuit of “sanctuary city” policies and supervised injection sites in what he described as defiance of federal law. His railing against “George Soros-funded progressive prosecutors” earned him return visits to right-wing cable news shows.
Many assistant U.S. attorneys shared McSwain’s dim view of Krasner. But they still described his public attacks as counterproductive at best, and unethical at worst.
”Bill’s decision to openly go to war with Krasner made our jobs a lot harder,” one said. “We still have to work with the DA’s Office.”
McSwain promises more of the same as governor. He vowed last month to push a constitutional amendment that would make Philadelphia’s DA a position appointed by the governor, instead of elected by city voters.
He unveiled that pledge with another splashy news conference.