Two former White House lawyers say U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy’s recent actions in support of San Diego mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio don’t violate the Hatch Act.

DeMaio’s opponent, Bob Filner, called on Duffy to resign multiple times in the past few days, alleging she violated the law that prohibits federal employees from using their official capacity to influence elections.

“Everything that she did, it looks like she painted by the numbers,” said Scott Coffina, a partner at Drinker Biddle law firm and former associate counsel to President George W. Bush.

But both Coffina and Richard Painter, another former Bush administration lawyer, criticized DeMaio for leaking a private email Duffy sent to his campaign and then touting her support later.

“He’s putting her in a situation where it looks like she’s violating the Hatch Act,” said Painter, who’s now a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

Filner said Duffy’s actions crossed the line.

“She is illegally participating in an election,” Filner, a congressman, said at a debate Thursday.

Duffy donated $250 to DeMaio last month. But her involvement in the election didn’t become an issue until two weeks ago.

Duffy, acting as a private citizen, helped organize a mayoral campaign forum at a Del Cerro synagogue to which she belongs. Afterward, she emailed a DeMaio staffer from her personal account, calling Filner’s behavior at the forum “uncivil” and that members of the temple believed Filner “embarrassed himself.”

DeMaio’s campaign forwarded Duffy’s email to reporters, which both the campaign and Duffy have said was done without her knowledge. Duffy reiterated in a subsequent interview with U-T San Diego that Filner had an “unprofessional flare up” during the forum.

DeMaio later used Duffy’s donation and comments to imply he had her backing.

“I’m supported by Mayor Jerry Sanders. I’m supported by the leading Democrat donor, Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs. Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney, donated to my campaign and today commented about her displeasure with the congressman’s temperament,” DeMaio said at a campaign forum last week.

Both Coffina and Painter said they believed Duffy acted within the bounds of the law.

Duffy’s email came from her personal account, she emphasized in subsequent interviews with Voice of San Diego and the U-T that she wasn’t endorsing in the race and there’s no evidence she intended her email to DeMaio’s campaign to become public. San Diego’s mayoral election is technically nonpartisan, which could afford her additional protections under the law. Federal employees are allowed to donate to campaigns.

But Painter said that he thought Duffy should have shown more discretion in her email. And if Duffy conspired with DeMaio’s campaign to release the correspondence, Painter said he believed that would be a Hatch Act violation.

There’s no evidence Duffy was involved in the email getting out. In fact, DeMaio took responsibility for the email leak at a debate Wednesday night, calling it “an unfortunate mistake by one of our campaign staffers.” He said he wouldn’t use Duffy’s comments in campaign advertisements.

Filner and Duffy have had a recent high-profile dispute, which the congressman referenced during Thursday’s debate. Duffy took an active role in shutting down local medical marijuana dispensaries over the summer. Filner openly criticized that decision, calling her efforts to close a San Diego County-approved dispensary “unwarranted intimidation.”

Duffy’s spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. Our media partner NBC 7 San Diego has reported that the U.S. Justice Department was reviewing Duffy’s involvement in the mayor’s race.

You can watch Filner and DeMaio’s comments about Duffy from Wednesday night’s debate, which VOSD co-sponsored with NBC.

After the debate, myself, VOSD CEO Scott Lewis and NBC’s Catherine Garcia and Gene Cubbison discussed the broader implications of Filner’s remarks about Duffy.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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