Federal authorities have charged troubled Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams with 23 counts of public corruption stemming from a gifts scandal that first surfaced in 2015.
Williams, 50, was indicted on charges of wire fraud, scheming to defraud the city of honest services, and extortion- and bribery-related offenses, according to the indictment filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
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,” according to the indictment. Those gifts included a $6,300 trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with personal butler service, airline tickets to Florida, Las Vegas and San Diego for Williams and his family, 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.
“I am merely a thankful beggar and don’t want to overstep my bounds in asking… but we will gladly go,” Williams allegedly texted Ali, referring to the Punta Cana trip. To Weiss, he allegedly texted this about travel plans: “Dude…I never want to feel like a drag on your wallet…but we are ALWAYS ready for an adventure.”
In exchange, Williams helped Ali get a favorable plea deal for a friend and dodge stringent security screening at a U.S. border after foreign travel, according to the indictment. Williams appointed Weiss as a special adviser, wrote a letter to help him in a business dispute, and helped him get a police accident report for a friend, the indictment charged.
Williams also allegedly took more than $20,000 from his mother and family friends that was intended to pay for his mother’s nursing home expenses but spent it instead on his mortgage, tuition bills and other personal expenses, according to the indictment.
“Mr. Williams simply took money that did not belong to him. And then he lied about it,” said William E. Fitzpatrick, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference at the William J. Green Jr. Federal Building. Fitzpatrick said Philadelphia authorities asked his office to investigate to avoid actual and perceived bias.
FBI Special Agent in Charge-Philadelphia Michael Harpster agreed: “It’s distressing to see a public official put quid pro quo above justice for all.”
Williams’ annual salary is $175,572, according to city payroll records. He faces decades in jail if convicted.
“At this time we are still reviewing the indictment and cannot offer any specific response to the allegations,” Williams’ attorney, Michael Diamondstein, said Tuesday night.
But Williams “vehemently denies that he ever compromised any investigation, case or law enforcement function,” Diamondstein added.
The indictment comes after a long FBI and IRS probe, in which investigators found that the city’s top law enforcer allegedly took more than $160,000 in gifts — including a $45,000 roof repair job, trips to Key West and Thailand, and two all-access Eagles tickets on the sidelines — that should have been disclosed in annual reports. He agreed in January to the largest-ever ethics settlement with the city — about $62,000.
Fitzpatrick said Williams’ alleged crimes should not taint his office: “These actions are limited to Mr. Williams. The Philadelphia District Attorney Office’s integrity, honesty and effectiveness was not undermined at all.”
Mayor Jim Kenney called Williams’ indictment “deeply shameful.”
“It is deeply shameful that the City’s chief law enforcement officer has been implicated in such a flagrant violation of the law,” Kenney said. “At a time when our citizens’ trust in government is at an all-time low, it is disheartening to see yet another elected official give the public a reason not to trust us. That this comes at the head of our justice system is even more troubling. We must all greatly raise the bar for our behavior and show the citizens of Philadelphia that we are capable of carrying out our most basic responsibilities as elected officials, upholding the law.”
Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Deborah R. Gross called on Williams to resign, issuing this statement on behalf of the association’s 12,000 members: “This is a sad day for the citizens of Philadelphia. It is imperative that DA Williams resign from his position immediately to maintain the integrity of, and restore the public’s confidence in, our justice system. The charges against him cast a shadow on the District Attorney’s Office, our legal community and the entire City of Philadelphia. It truly is an embarrassment. Our District Attorney is the chief prosecutor in the City of Philadelphia. Such unethical behavior is unacceptable. Therefore, we call for his immediate resignation.”
Williams announced last month that he would not seek reelection for a third term to a seat he has held since 2010.
“During my tenure, I have made regrettable mistakes in my personal life and my personal, financial life that cast an unnecessary shadow over the district attorney’s office,” Williams said during that announcement. “My decision to accept gifts and fail to report them brought much embarrassment, shame and adverse publicity to me and unfortunately to the office for which I love.
“For this, I will always hold deep regret in my heart. My poor judgment caused distractions, which made the already difficult job of my assistants and critical staff even more challenging and raised doubts in the minds of some citizens regarding my character and my fitness to serve as your district attorney.”
Williams made a name for himself for, in part, by prosecuting public officials who failed to disclose gifts, including taking up a sting operation that the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office had chosen not to pursue.
Williams served as assistant district attorney and inspector general before he became the city’s first African-American district attorney in 2010. Williams served two terms and was running for a third in a race that has seven candidates. Now running in the Democratic primary are 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 Tariq Karim El-Shabazz, Williams’ former top deputy in the DA’s Office. One Republican, attorney Beth Grossman, also is running.