Federal judge backs off criticism of U.S. attorney

Nearly a month after openly criticizing staffing decisions made by U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger in a high-profile case, a federal judge softened his tone Thursday and acknowledged he had little authority to order more prosecutors to be assigned to the case.

"I thoroughly respect your position," U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson told Memeger at a hearing in the conspiracy case against members of a Philadelphia ironworkers' union. "You're the U.S. attorney, and your office has the authority to make its decisions about how to approach cases."

It was a far different tone than the one Baylson had at a hearing last month.

At the time, he described the decision to send only one assistant prosecutor to court as "unacceptable" and took the unusual step of ordering Memeger to assign two more lawyers to the case or he would convene a hearing on the issue.

As a former U.S. attorney himself, Baylson said, he knew the resources necessary to handle a case involving hundreds of taped phone conversations, dozens of text messages, and more than 160 boxes of documents.

"I can order the government to do certain things, and that's what I'm doing," Baylson said at the time.

Memeger resisted, arguing the court had no authority to issue such a directive, and arrived in court Thursday backed by a full cadre of his office's top deputies.

Baylson quickly backpedaled.

"I was expressing a wish or a desire, not a formal court order," the judge said.

Still, he noted, while discussing the situation with "other judges sitting around the lunch table," they thought a complex conspiracy case such as the one lodged against the ironworkers warranted top priority at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Memeger assured the judge he intended to handle the case "as efficiently and effectively as possible."

Ten members of Ironworkers Local 401, including its longtime head, Joseph Dougherty, stand accused of waging a years-long campaign to secure jobs through extortion, sabotage, and harassment of contractors.

Since the indictment was unsealed in February, the allegations have drawn national attention and spawned a legislative push to amend laws exempting union members from prosecution under state stalking and harassment statutes.