After federal indictment, what’s next for Philly DA Seth Williams?

A profile photo of the former DA

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A day after federal authorities indicted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams on a tawdy mix of money-grabbing schemes, questions mounted about the future of an office that handles about 40,000 criminal cases a year.

[Updated 4:30 p.m.] This story has been updated to reflect comments from Seth Williams’ attorney, Michael Diamondstein.

A day after federal authorities indicted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams on a tawdy mix of money-grabbing schemes, questions mounted about the future of an office that handles about 40,000 criminal cases a year.

Will Williams resign? Will he lose his law license? And how does that affect who will be the city’s next top law enforcer?

Observers agree Williams, who pleaded not guilty during his arraignment in federal court Wednesday afternoon, is unlikely to quit.

He so far has ignored growing calls for his resignation, made by everyone from Mayor Jim Kenney, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby, and Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Deborah R. Gross to nearly all of the seven candidates running to replace him.

And he needs his salary, watchers agreed. His infamous money troubles are what drove federal investigators to begin probing his affairs in the first place. Last year, the man who pulls in a $175,572 annual city salary told Philly Mag: “I can barely pay my bills now. I have to pay alimony, child support, tuition, private school. I have five jobs — D.A., Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and I’m an adjunct at three law schools — all to just try to eke out an existence.”

If he doesn’t resign, he’s likely to serve until the end of the year, legal observers agreed.

A federal indictment isn’t enough to boot him from office. Only a conviction can do that, said election attorney Adam Bonin.

“He could hold the office until the end of the year unless he was convicted sooner, which is not going to happen,” Bonin said, referring to the glacial pace cases can sometimes take.

Even if the state Supreme Court suspends his law license, he could continue in his post, attorneys agreed. Kathleen Kane, the state’s disgraced ex-attorney general, held onto her job for nearly a year after her license was suspended.

A spokesperson for the disciplinary board of the state Supreme Court said complaints about his law license are confidential, and she couldn’t confirm rumors that efforts are under way to suspend it.

If he does resign, his First Assistant District Attorney — Kathleen E. Martin, who got the job just last week after Tariq Karim El-Shabazz, who held the post, resigned to run for D.A. — would serve as acting district attorney.

She could serve until the end of the year — but more likely, judges from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas will appoint someone to finish Williams’ term, election law attorney Gregory Harvey said. That appointed replacement, unless he or she already is a declared candidate in the D.A.’s race, cannot run as a Democrat or Republican for the seat, because the deadline to run in the May 16 primary has passed.

The Chancellor of the Bar Association and others could pursue an emergency order suspending his privileges, Harvey said. And the state Senate could hold a one-day hearing to offer Williams a chance to defend himself — and with a two-thirds majority vote, urge the governor to remove him from office, he added.

Harvey added his voice to the chorus of those calling on Williams to resign.

“The allegations against Seth Williams are several orders of magnitude worse — legally and morally — than accusations against any other Philadelphia public official in my memory, especially his ripping off the funds for the support of his relative in a nursing home. He should resign before sundown today,” said Harvey, 80, who chaired the Philadelphia Board of Ethics from 1984 to 1991 and been a member of the Philadelphia bar since 1963.

If he stays put, everyone in the D.A.’s Office should “shun him,” Harvey said.

“They should refuse to speak with him, they should refuse to take any direction from him, they should have nothing to do with him, as if he was an apostate within a religious community,” Harvey said. “Whatever they’re doing should not possibly be tainted by him. They should regard him as if he had died.”

Asked for comment, Williams’ attorney Michael Diamondstein said, “Seth Williams categorically denies, categorically denies, that he is guilty of any crime. We ask only that this rush to judgment stop, and that the public recognize that this case will be decided in a court of law. ” Cameron Kline, a spokesman for the D.A.’s Office, declined to comment, saying only that Williams has been away, spending time with his family.

He pleaded not guilty during his Wednesday arraignment in U.S. District Court on 23 counts of wire fraud, scheming to defraud the city of honest services, and extortion- and bribery-related offenses. He was released on  $50,000 unsecured bail, which means he would owe that money if he didn’t appear for his court dates.

The indictment, filed Tuesday, accuses Williams of taking more than $20,000 from his mother and a family friend that was intended to pay for his mother’s nursing home expenses — but instead spending on his mortgage, tuition bills, and other personal expenses.

It also alleges that two business owners — Mohammad N. Ali, who owned a business that sold prepaid telephone cards, and Bill Weiss, who owns the Gayborhood bar Woody’s — showered Williams with gifts worth more than $34,000 in exchange for Williams being “ready to help should the need arise.”

Those gifts included a $6,300 trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with personal butler service, airline tickets, a $3,212 custom sofa, a used 1997 Jaguar convertible worth $4,160, an iPad, pricey dinners, a luxury watch, purse and tie, and at least $9,000 in cash and checks, authorities said. In exchange, Williams agreed to help Ali get a favorable plea deal for a friend and dodge stringent security screening at a U.S. border after foreign travel and appointed Weiss as a special adviser. He also wrote a letter to help him in a business dispute, and helped him get a police accident report for a friend, the indictment charged.

Seven candidates are running to replace Williams, including Republican attorney Beth Grossman and Democrats former prosecutor Joe Khan, former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, former Philadelphia Managing Director Rich Negrin, defense attorney Lawrence Krasner, former prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, and El-Shabazz.

 

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