A $250-a-person fund-raiser held at the townhouse of interim U.S. Attorney Laurie Magid has drawn the attention of the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
Investigators are examining whether a law that limits the political activities of federal employees has been violated, those sources said. The Jan. 30 fund-raiser was held for former U.S. Attorney Patrick L. Meehan, a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2010. Several hundred people were invited, including as many as 20 prosecutors who work for Magid. The host was her husband, Jeffrey A. Miller, a prominent caterer, and Magid and a handful of of the prosecutors she supervises attended.
Magid, 48, a Republican who became the region's top federal prosecutor when Meehan stepped down in the summer, declined to comment Friday. She said her husband also would have no comment.
People close to her said she had cleared the fund-raiser with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that provides guidance on activities prohibited by the Hatch Act.
The invitations were sent by Miller, also a Republican, and Magid's name did not appear on them. In fact, some invitees mistakenly thought they had come from Center City defense lawyer Jeffrey M. Miller.
Meehan said in a telephone interview Friday that he believed Magid had made efforts to follow all guidelines.
"I'm quite confident that Laurie Magid was meticulous in taking every appropriate step to assure that things were done properly," he said.
Several current and former prosecutors questioned the propriety of the fund-raiser, saying such an event - even hosted by a spouse of the U.S. attorney - endangered long-standing safeguards aimed at keeping partisan politics out of the office. "This has never happened before" in this particular office, said one.
Another said it seemed to reflect the politicization of the Justice Department that took place during the Bush administration, when "loyalty was more important than ability."
Michael A. Schwartz, a former head of the corruption unit in the office who attended the fund-raiser, said it was his experience that Magid always handled issues in a "professional and apolitical manner."
Magid, he said, made prosecutorial decisions "without any political partisanship whatsoever."
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia brings criminal and civil actions on behalf of the federal government in the nine-county Eastern District of Pennsylvania. It has a staff of about 140 prosecutors.
Attorneys in the office are prosecuting the case against former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a once-powerful Democrat in Harrisburg and in Philadelphia. While prominent U.S. attorneys in other parts of the country, including New Jersey, have run for political office, Meehan is the first former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia in recent memory to be considering a run.
When she sought the advisory opinion, Magid was told that the Hatch Act did not prohibit a spouse from holding a fund-raiser, and that it was OK for her to attend, help in its planning, and even help compile the guest list, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
While she was not specifically told it was OK to invite current employees, Magid believed she could do so after reviewing the act, that person said. "As far as I'm aware, all this was an effort to give people who worked closely with Pat a chance to show their support, if they wanted," said Geoffrey Moulton, a former first assistant U.S. attorney in the office who attended the fund-raiser.
Moulton, a law professor at Widener University, said the act did not prohibit inviting federal employees to such a fund-raiser. "There is no prohibition on inviting people who happen to be in the U.S. Attorney's Office," he said.
Investigators from the Office of Inspector General recently interviewed Magid and supervisory prosecutors who had received invitations, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
They asked about the Jan. 30 event and a fund-raiser that Miller hosted at their home about a year ago for U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), sources indicated.
Meehan, a former Delaware County district attorney, was appointed U.S. attorney in 2001. He has formed a political action committee, Meehan for Pennsylvania, and is weighing a possible run for governor. He also has been mentioned as a possible U.S. Senate candidate if Specter decides not to seek another term.
While Magid, who was first assistant to Meehan, would like President Obama to formally nominate her as his successor, most political observers think that is unlikely because they believe he will name a Democrat.
Campaign-finance records show that in addition to the $2,300 raised for Specter in 2007, Miller contributed $2,000 to the McCain-Palin campaign and $250 to the campaign of Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.).
Scott Hoeflich, Specter's chief of staff, said in a statement yesterday that Magid had told the Specter campaign that she had gotten advice outlining the appropriate ways to conduct the event and that "Citizens for Arlen Specter is not aware of any issues raised by Jeff Miller's event."