The changes are expected to take place in about a month, according to Laurie Magid, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and Linda Hoffa, head of the office's Criminal Division. Both said the move would enhance the unit's ability to make cases.
Critics, including former prosecutors and FBI agents, said the consolidation could hinder the development of intelligence-based investigations and marginalize the fight against organized crime.
Magid said she wanted the same expertise that has been used against organized crime employed in cases against major drug gangs.
"Our commitment to fighting organized crime is in no way diminished," she said yesterday shortly after announcing the changes at a regularly scheduled staff meeting.
Magid, the former first assistant U.S. attorney, was named interim head of the office in July when Patrick Meehan, her boss, resigned.
"The strike force is not being disbanded," added Hoffa. "Far from it. We're putting together a stronger and larger team."
Nine federal prosecutors who work in the strike force unit are being transferred to new offices and will report to Thomas Perricone, currently the supervisor of the narcotics and dangerous drugs section. Perricone, who joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1994 from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, will head a newly formed narcotics and organized crime section.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer, who was the supervisor of the strike force, will return to prosecuting cases under Perricone and will hold one of two senior litigation counsel posts created under the new structure. Troyer declined to comment last week.
Two former prosecutors who worked some of the biggest mob cases in Philadelphia history questioned the move, as did James Maher, a retired FBI agent who supervised an organized crime squad that in the 1980s and 1990s worked with the strike force to decimate one of the most violent Mafia families in America.
"That wasn't by chance, it was because of the commitment," said Barry Gross, a former federal prosecutor who worked dozens of mob cases during a career that spanned three decades.
A member of the prosecuting teams that convicted mob bosses Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, John Stanfa, Ralph Natale and Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, Gross said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the change.
Louis Pichini, a former strike force prosecutor who directed the 1988 racketeering prosecution of Scarfo and 16 of his top associates - a case that gutted the local mob family - said "the acid test will be in the implementation" of the proposed changes.
Pichini, who also headed the criminal division before leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office, said it was important for "the unit to maintain an identity and expertise" and to be given the time to develop long-term cases.
If not, he said, prosecutors working there would be interchangeable with prosecutors from any other section, and the expertise and mandate of the strike force would be lost.
Strike forces were set up in the 1970s to develop broad-based cases and intelligence in the fight against traditional organized crime groups like La Cosa Nostra and the Sicilian Mafia. Over the years, their targets have been expanded to include Russian and Eastern European crime cartels, Asian criminal organizations, and ethnic gangs like the Latin Kings.
In the Eastern District, the strike force left its biggest mark attacking the South Philadelphia-based mob that once dominated the local underworld.
Perricone said yesterday that he had "tremendous respect" for those accomplishments.
"Having grown up in South Philadelphia and seeing what the mob can do, I can tell you that not on my watch will I allow resources to be taken away," he said. But critics question whether what is being called an expansion is in fact a dilution of a unit that had a clear agenda and a defined focus.
One current federal prosecutor, who asked not to be identified, said that without a supervisor to advocate and promote strike force cases, investigations could get bogged down or marginalized in the internal politics and bureaucracy of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Sources in both the U.S. Attorneys Office and the FBI have said that an ongoing investigation into reputed mob boss Joseph Ligambi and his top associates had gone "off track" twice because of bureaucratic squabbling.
Maher, who headed the FBI's organized crime squad in Philadelphia for nearly two decades, called the strike force "one of the most important weapons" in the war against organized crime. "Agents working the cases had attorneys who spoke the same language," Maher said in an e-mail response to questions about the consolidation.
He pointed out that the local mob family is built around "people who have grown up with one another in evolving relationships. ... To combat those relationships, you need agents and attorneys who don't need to learn them all over again when a case starts to develop."
Strike forces were once separate entities from U.S. Attorney's Offices. They were consolidated into those offices but remained separate units. Now they may be the victims of their own successes as well as the changing priorities of the Justice Department.
Traditional organized crime has taken a series of prosecutorial hits in most major cities and experts say that the American Mafia in 2008 is an organizational shell of what it was just 30 years ago.
In addition, the emergence of violent ethnic drug gangs, the proliferation of illegal weapons, and the need to focus on terrorism and its related threats have led federal prosecutors in other cities to reassign assets and resources, and consolidate strike force operations.
Thanks to George Anastasia