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Op-Ed:Should US Attorney Laura Duffy Resign over Conflict?

by Steve Peace, published
Photo: Stephanie Woodrow

US Attorney Laura Duffy

US Attorney Laura Duffy heads the Southern California Office of the Justice Department. The San Diego U-T reported that she has involved herself in the local San Diego mayoral election. In the article she described her involvement as organizing and moderating a campaign forum for the local Jewish community.

Apparently, the event got a bit testy when candidate Bob Filner strenuously objected to his opponent, Carl DeMaio’s aggressive questioning. Duffy followed up the event with an email to the DeMaio campaign “apologizing” for Filner’s conduct and characterizing the audience reaction as positive for DeMaio.

The DeMaio campaign made this email public. Duffy was quick to characterize the email as “private,” but then weighed in with additional on-the-record comments for the U-T article. Duffy’s urgency about characterizing the email as “private” is clearly borne out of her knowledge of the Hatch Act.

The Hatch Act is the Federal law prohibiting Federal employees from participating in elections. The “release” of the “private” email is a pretty transparent tactic to protect Duffy from charges that she has violated at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the Act.

But, the revelation that she also gave money to DeMaio is a smoking cannon. Laura Duffy is not just a federal employee; she is the U.S. Attorney. The issue isn’t that she violated the Hatch Act. The mayor’s race is technically nonpartisan and therefore exempt from the Hatch Act, but California now has nonpartisan Open Primaries. Meaning that, technically, the Hatch Act no longer applies to any California elections except that for President.

Yet, the U.S. Attorney’s office has, as recently as this summer, enforced the Hatch Act against an Orange County Social Services Agency employee who administered federal funds and had sought to run for office in Southern California. He was forced to withdraw, even after his name was placed on the ballot.

There is room for argument concerning rank and file federal employees and the question about how far away from the “electioneering” line they should stay. But, the U.S. Attorney has to enforce these laws. In this case, Duffy has not only crossed the line of appropriate behavior by participating in the election. She has added an element of sleaze to the story by participating in what appears to be an orchestrated leak of a “private” email clearly designed to benefit the candidate she has supported financially.

At a minimum she put herself in a position that a U.S. Attorney should know better than to be in. But, the more believable interpretation of events is even more troubling. She gave money to a candidate. She organized an event. She invited both candidates. She established the rules of the event. She moderated the event. Filner clearly began to smell a rat as the event unfolded. After the event, she initiated an email to the candidate she supports articulating a partisan view of what occurred. She participated in an interview with the local newspaper to insist that the “leaked” email was “private”, never intended for publication. But, then she kept talking.

This isn’t about who people support in a Mayor’s race. It’s not even about San Diego. I do not live in the City of San Diego. The DeMaio campaign tactic is shady, but I’m sure the Filner campaign has its share of similar efforts. That’s politics. That’s why, of all institutions, the Department of Justice simply has to keep itself miles and miles away from politics. For the U.S. Attorney to involve herself, or even get close enough to let others get her involved, is inexcusable.

In the words of the Vice President, “This is a big … uh … deal.” She should resign.


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