‘I’m thankful for our friendship,’ Philly DA once said of key witness in corruption case
Businessman Mohammad Ali had a picture of himself and a friend prominently displayed in his Bucks County office.
Ali once gave the friend a $205 Louis Vuitton tie as a birthday gift.
His pal fancied the members-only Union League in Philadelphia, but when that wasn’t possible, Ali would invite him to the Capital Grille where he would pick up the tab, even if it was as much as $338.
Then there was the oceanfront getaway at a Dominican Republic resort town where Ali arranged a stay. Once there, Ali treated himself and his friend to Swedish massages.
“I’m thankful for our friendship. We have to have cigars soon,” read a text Ali received from his friend — also known as Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
The jury of 10 women and two men in the corruption trial of Williams heard Ali testify Thursday as prosecutors pressed him about the gifts he showered upon Williams.
Why did he work so hard, they asked, to dazzle Philadelphia’s top prosecutor?
“Seems good to know someone in a good place,” said Ali, 40, who used to run a prepaid cellphone-card business. “I asked him to help me with a couple of things.”
In particular, Ali sought Williams’ help in getting past the additional airport screenings he was being put through. Later, Ali asked Williams to assist a Center City nightclub DJ facing drug and gun charges.
“I can’t promise I will drastically change anything once it has gotten to the trial stage, but I can always look into it,” Williams texted Ali about the DJ’s case.
‘It’s good knowing someone like Seth’
Federal prosecutors allege Ali is one of the wealthy businessmen who bribed Williams from 2010 to 2015 in exchange for official acts as district attorney.
Ali, who has pleaded guilty to bribery and filing false tax returns, agreed to cooperate with federal authorities ahead of his sentencing date.
As part of his plea deal, Ali agreed to pay the Internal Revenue Service $163,000 in restitution.
Over the years, prosecutors said, Ali’s generosity was not reciprocated. The district attorney accepted Ali’s lavish offerings in exchange for personal access, authorities contend. They say Williams traded on the power of his office to enrich himself.
“Seth Williams ever buy you a gift,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Vineet Gauri asked Ali.
“No,” Ali replied.
During one 2012 dinner at the Union League, Ali learned that Williams and his then-girlfriend, Stacey Cummings, were looking for some furniture upgrades. It just so happened that Ali knew someone who worked at Raymour & Flanigan.
After Cummings picked out a custom-made, $3,212 chocolate-colored sectional couch, Williams was hoping to put down $1,000 and finance the remaining cost. But Ali decided to surprise Williams by buying it for him as a gift.
Gauri asked Ali why he did so.
Pausing to think, Ali then said, “So I can be closer to him. I was going through some troubles in my life, and it’s good knowing someone like Seth, because maybe he can help.”
Frequent flier, frequent delays
Earlier in the day, Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Thomas Acerne testified about the airport searches Ali encountered when returning from frequent trips abroad.
Ali, who was born in Jordan, suspected he was being racially profiled, but authorities say he was of interest because officials suspected he was dodging his federal taxes, and later authorities began to unpack his ties to Williams.
Ali used Williams to reach out to staffers in U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s office to try to figure out what the searches were about. And he met with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Joseph Sullivan — now the deputy commissioner — to try to sort out the screenings.
Ali later learned he was under investigation when about 20 agents raided his home and business in September 2014.
Williams, whose law license is suspended, is still running the district attorney’s office in an administrative capacity. The first assistant in the office, Kathy Martin, handles all other leadership responsibilities.
Martin is expected to be called as a witness in the trial; former District Attorney Lynne Abraham and Cummings, Williams’ former girlfriend, have also been named as potential witnesses.
Voters will choose Williams’ replacement in the November general election in which civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, a Democrat, squares off against Republican Beth Grossman, a former prosecutor. In January, the winner will be sworn in to succeed Williams.
Williams, a Democrat, has dismissed calls for him to resign from his $175,000-a-year post since federal prosecutors indicted him on 23 corruption-related charges in March (six more counts were added in May, for a total of 29). Abraham even sued to boot Williams from office, but the lawsuit was unsuccessful. It is now on appeal.
A light moment
On Thursday, the jury took stock of Ali’s chumminess with Williams not only through the litany of gifts but also in hearing about inside jokes Williams shared with the Lamborghini-driving businessman.
“Just saw you in a Drake rap video,” Williams wrote in a text to Ali, referring to the celebrity Canadian rapper.
Gauri asked what Williams was talking about.
“He always said I looked like Drake,” said Ali.
The courtroom rippled with laughter, and, for the first time all day, Williams cracked a wide smile.
Prosecutors will continue questioning Ali Friday, and Williams’ defense team will start its cross-examination of the key witness.
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