Lawyers representing Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams told a federal jury Tuesday that the city’s top prosecutor didn’t commit any of the crimes he’s accused of. Instead, they say the case against the two-term Democrat boils down to “bad mistakes” and “poor judgment.”
“They’re going to be able to prove that he’s human,” said defense attorney Thomas Burke during his roughly hourlong opening statement.
During the first day of Williams’ trial, Burke characterized the five schemes his client allegedly participated in as friends helping friends, a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation of the law.
Prosecutors see it differently. They argue Williams, 50, accepted bribes from two wealthy businessmen; stole money from family and his political action committee, and drove city cars when he wasn’t working.
They say Williams received free trips to a resort in the Dominican Republic, airline tickets to Florida and California, and an old luxury car through a pair of quid-pro-quo schemes where Williams agreed to use his position to help close friends. In one instance, with a criminal case Williams’ office was prosecuting.
Prosecutors maintain Williams also brazenly took tens of thousands of dollars meant to pay for his mother’s care at a nonprofit nursing home and used campaign cash for personal expenses, including lavish dinners at the Philadelphia Union League.
Some of the money Williams allegedly took came in the form of Social Security and pension payments. The rest was taken from friends who wanted to help Williams’ mother cover her considerable nursing home bills.
Williams’ alleged motivation for all of this? Living a lavish lifestyle that he couldn’t otherwise afford, prosecutors said.
“Whenever Seth Williams had a chance to put his hand in someone else’s pocket, he did,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Vineet Gauri.
Williams allegedly traded the “power and influence” of his office to help two “very good friends” — Mohammed Ali and Michael Weiss.
Ali, a Bucks County businessman, allegedly got Williams to repeatedly exert pressure on police with hopes limiting security screenings at the airport. At the time, Ali was the focus of a pending federal investigation.
Williams was also asked to look into a criminal case brought against a friend of Ali’s that the District Attorney’s Office was prosecuting.
Neither request bore fruit. But Williams allegedly received expensive dinners, an iPad, a $3,200 custom couch, and trips to Punta Cana for his work.
“Mr. Williams even went para-sailing and got a massage — all on Ali’s dime,” said Gauri, who showed jurors a series of text messages that allegedly document the pair’s arrangement.
Weiss, a well-known Philadelphia bar owner and member of the city’s LGBT community, allegedly wanted Williams’ help repairing his image and getting his name back on the liquor license of a bar in California.
Weiss, who had a federal conviction, allegedly gave Williams more than a dozen airline tickets and a 1997 Jaguar convertible.
Burke argued Williams’ relationships with Ali and Weiss were in no way “transactional.” He said they were both close friends who enjoyed giving Williams the gifts outlined in the government’s 29-count indictment.
“These guys … text each other like a couple of schoolgirls,” said Burke. And he predicted prosecutors would only be able to prove part of the alleged quid-pro-quo schemes involving the trio. Prosecutors need to be able to show the the gifts and the DA’s favors were linked to sustain the bribery charges.
“They’re going to be able to prove the ‘this’ … but they’re not going to be able to prove the ‘that,'” said Burke.
Both Weiss and Ali are expected to testify against Williams during what’s expected to be up to a monthlong trial.
Former city Managing Director Richard Negrin and former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham may also take the stand.
In January, Williams agreed to pay a $62,000 fine to the City of Philadelphia Board of Ethics for failing to report gifts on required financial disclosure forms for six years.
Nearing the end of his second term, Williams is not seeking re-election.