UPDATED: Philly DA Seth Williams pleads guilty, resigns, awaits Oct. sentencing in U.S. custody

 Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Seth Williams pleaded guilty to one count of bribery and was taken into federal custody Thursday after resigning as Philadelphia’s district attorney. The quick turn of events brings a years-old corruption case to an end following Williams’ dogged fight to defeat the criminal charges that eventually toppled him.

As part of the surprise deal halting a nearly two-week federal corruption trial, Williams will escape convictions on the 28 other counts he faced, although he confessed to the underlining conduct of those charges.

After the plea was officially entered, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond said Williams has a history of being untruthful. Fearing Williams could pose a flight risk ahead of his fall sentencing date, Diamond ordered him held in federal prison over the protest of Williams’ defense team.

“He has no means, as the court can see, financial or otherwise, to go anywhere else,” defense attorney Thomas Burke said to Diamond, but the judge was not persuaded.

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“I am appalled by the evidence I heard,” Diamond said. “I do not believe him.”

Diamond revoked his bail and remanded Williams to the Federal Detention Center jail on 7th and Arch streets, to await sentencing. Williams left the courtroom in handcuffs escorted by U.S. marshals. The dramatic scene prompted his ex-wife, Sonita, with whom Williams has shared custody of three daughters, to break down in tears. Supporters of Williams then moved in to console her.

Williams, 50, faces a maximum punishment of five years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 24. Had a jury convicted him of all 29 counts, he could have spent decades in prison if the terms ran consecutively.

“I’m just very sorry for all of this trouble,” Williams told Diamond when asked if he had any words for the court.

Prosecutors said the development was unforeseen. Williams, prosecutors told the judge, informed government lawyers of his decision to plead guilty around 1 a.m. Thursday. Later, prosecutors told reporters Williams declined before the start of the trial to accept a similar plea agreement.

Williams’ lawyer Thomas Burke said it was not any one witness who tipped the balance. “Sometimes it’s not the quality but quantity of it,” he said.

The startling conclusion to the trial comes as federal prosecutors were outlining their case to jurors, who have heard seven days of gripping testimony about how Williams, a onetime Democrat rising star, sold the prestige of the office to moneyed benefactors by taking designer gifts, swanky dinners and Caribbean vacations. In turn, government lawyers described how Williams carried out official acts for those gift-givers.

During testimony, humiliating details about Williams’ personal life was aired in open court as dozens of text messages over several years were read aloud.

“Mr. Williams sold his office in exchange for a corrupt stream of benefits,” said  William Fitzpatrick, acting U.S. attorney for New Jersey, which oversaw the prosecution of Williams. “It’s unfortunate. It’s sad. It’s a betrayal of the trust people placed in him. But, today, Williams was held accountable.”

Burke, Williams’ defense lawyer, told reporters after the court hearing that his client apologizes to voters and the staff in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.

“Seth Williams has accepted responsibility,” Burke said. “This is obviously a very sad day for him and his family,” he said. “I think this was a very hard decision for a proud man.”

Surprise development

On Thursday, the jury of 10 women and two men were expected to hear the defense team cross-examine a government witness from the Philadelphia Board of Ethics. Williams’ defense was expected to start after a Fourth of July recess.

But the jury never was called into the courtroom. Instead, government lawyers confabbed with defense lawyers, papers were shuffled and signed between both sides for an hour and a half before Williams walked into the courtroom. Instead of sitting near the end of the counsel table, Williams for the first time took his seat in the middle, between his two lawyers, as the judge asked him if he was forced by anyone to enter his plea.

“No, your honor,” Williams said.

Williams pleaded guilty to involvement in a quid-pro-quo relationship with Bucks County businessman Muhammad Ali, identified as Businessman No. 1 in the criminal indictment filed in March.

Prosecutors said Williams took benefits from Ali, including a $6,000 vacation in Punta Cana in February 2012 in which the two went para-sailing and received Swedish massages. Ali also gave Williams gifts including an iPad, a Burberry watch, and a $3,200 chocolate-colored sectional couch.

In exchange, the government said, Williams abused his office by giving Ali special treatment. For instance, Williams tried to remedy airport security hassles Ali was experiencing. Williams also took steps to lessen the punishment of a friend of Ali’s who was facing drug and gun charges. Although Williams’ efforts did not alter the outcome of that case, prosecutors said the attempt was enough to show Williams was selling the power of the district attorney’s office.

On Thursday, as he summarized the case to the judge, U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer read one of droves of texts that the government introduced as evidence during the trial. This was sent to Ali about a Caribbean trip: “I am merely a thankful beggar, and I don’t want to overstep my bounds by asking, but I will gladly go,” Williams wrote.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer comments on the investigation into former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams after the city’s highest law officer pleaded guilty to one count of bribery Thursday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer comments on the investigation into former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams after the city’s highest law officer pleaded guilty to one count of bribery Thursday. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

The other schemes included allegedly taking a bribe from another businessman, Philadelphia restaurateur Mike Weiss, in addition to defrauding his political action committee and siphoning funds for personal use intended to pay for his mother’s nursing home care.

Williams’ defense pushed the government’s two star witnesses to admit that they were not intentionally bribing Williams with gifts by emphasizing how the district attorney had maintained genuine friendships with each businessman. They also highlighted the sometimes muddy line between the gift that was given and the official act allegedly performed in exchange. In addition, Williams defense attorney Burke described how the government was criminalizing routine political behavior. Yet even before the prosecution rested its case, Williams decided to admit defeat.

“He wanted closure for his family, and himself and the city,” Burke said.

Williams’ temporary replacement will be chosen by Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judges, who will meet and determine a successor to hold office until January, when Williams’ term would have expired.

The office then will be led by the winner of the November general election in which Democrat Larry Krasner faces off against Republican Beth Grossman.

There is still time for an independent to enter the race, but it is not considered likely, in part because that candidate would have to collect more than 4,075 signatures on a nominating petition by Aug. 1. In addition, the independent candidate would have to have been registered nonpartisan 30 days before the May primary.

Williams’ first assistant, Kathleen Martin, told reporters Thursday that the 600 attorneys in the district attorney’s office are still dedicated to their work.

“The courtrooms were staffed yesterday. They were staffed today, and they’ll be staffed tomorrow, and the mission of the office is what’s most important,” Martin said.

Martin said she would be willing to be the interim district attorney if the judges choose her.

WHYY’s Dave Davies contributed to this report 

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