EDPA U.S. Attorney William McSwain visits Penn Law professional responsibility course to discuss prosecutorial ethics and the press
By Vandana Menon
William McSwain, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, spoke at Penn Law about the work his office does and the relationship between prosecutors and the press on November 6. He addressed Penn Law lecturer Sozi Tulante’s class on Professional Responsibility, and discussed the ethical responsibilities of prosecutors.
Professor Tulante opened the class by discussing the rules that govern prosecutors’ statements to the press about ongoing criminal matters, including indictments and trials. Under the American Bar Association’s rules of professional conduct, prosecutors are discouraged from making strong statements to the press that could “heighten public condemnation” of a criminal defendant and prejudice court proceedings. Citing remarks by prosecutors in cases like the 2008 corruption trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and the 2006 sexual assault trial of several Duke lacrosse players, Tulante walked students through how the ABA rules might have applied in those instances.
McSwain noted that the Department of Justice has also released the Justice Manual, which establishes a framework of internal rules specifically for U.S. Attorneys to follow. The manual serves as a guideline, but is not binding and can be violated.
“It’s very important that when you’re in a position of power as a prosecutor that you really act in an appropriate way that demonstrates character,” said McSwain, who took office in April 2018. He represents the United States in all federal criminal prosecutions and civil litigation in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and supervises a staff of over 100 Assistant U.S. Attorneys.
McSwain talked about the importance of accountability and self-policing when it comes to making public statements about cases, as prosecutors often have to hold themselves to an ethical standard that no one else will. He mentioned that the U.S. Attorney’s office tries to ensure this accountability by maintaining complete transparency in its operations.
“We want to be held accountable. We want the public to know what we’re doing, and the more the public knows, the more they can judge what we’re doing. It’s not our U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s the taxpayers’ U.S. Attorney’s office,” he said, adding that engaging with the media is an important part of the office’s job to ensure this transparency. He also described the kind of content press releases from the office are expected to contain.
McSwain, who was accompanied by senior members of his office, gave the class insight into the way the office is run and the process behind how the office deals with cases. He detailed the kinds of cases the U.S. Attorney’s office has to take on, like cases of fraudulent billing. He also discussed some of the bigger cases they have dealt with since he took office, which includes indicting “the camel mom” (known for throwing her son a lavish prom sendoff which cost $25,000 and included a live camel) for social security fraud, and charging the Seattle Seahawks linebacker Mychal Kendricks with insider trading. Another example he gave was the sentencing of former Allentown MayorEd Pawlowski to 15 years in prison for political corruption. After discussing Pawlowski’s case, McSwain played a video clip of the Deputy U.S. Attorney at a press conference following the sentencing to demonstrate how prosecutors should conduct themselves when speaking with the press.