Philly DA Williams faces penalties after overdue disclosure of $160,000 in gifts

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Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has filed an overdue 34-page document detailing gifts he received over six years. It totals $160,000, including a $45,000 roof repair job as well as trips to Key West and Thailand. It comes a year after reports that the FBI and IRS were probing Williams’ personal and professional finances. 

Recently, Williams hired consultants to help him “professionalize” his record keeping and reporting. 

“It seems as though, as they went through the books, they found a whole bunch of stuff that was not reported when it should’ve been, and it’s now coming out at one time,” said Pat Christmas with the watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

Disclosing gifts as an officeholder is the law, Christmas said, and there are penalties for keeping handouts and favors secret.

“Gifts and influence are going to be always surrounding our public officials, but the prompt and constant disclosure of this stuff is what’s critical,” Christmas said.

On the city level, Williams could face up to a $1,000 civil fine per undisclosed gift. And on state level, penalties can be even stiffer, though they start at $250 for each violation.

“If a public official didn’t file a form as prescribed by the law, the public official then can be penalized up to amount of their compensation for holding the position,” said Robert Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

For Williams, that would be around $175,000, his annual salary.

Williams’ attorney Sam Stretton said he, city and state officials are now in talks to settle the apparent violations.

“He has now correctly amended the forms, and he has acted in good faith, and that’s the important thing,” Stretton said.

Stretton told the Philadelphia Inquirer, which first reported the late disclosures, that Williams “wasn’t paying attention” to his reporting requirements, thinking some of them didn’t have to be reported since they came from close friends.

State law allows public officials to keep gifts from friends or family secret, something the Philadelphia Bar Association is now renewing its push to reform.

“This exception should be completely eliminated to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Otherwise, public confidence in the government and fair administration of the justice system will be unduly compromised,” said Gaetan Alfano, who leads the association. “The public could question whether such gifts, especially of this magnitude, were motivated by considerations of political power as opposed to true friendship.”

Among the gifts Williams listed were two all-access Eagles tickets right on the sidelines for five seasons. What did they add up to?

Williams’ report said “no face value.”

The FBI, meanwhile, has not commented on its ongoing investigations of Williams, and it’s unclear if his new financial disclosures are at all connected.

Williams is seeking a third-term as district attorney next year, in an off-year election which is expected to have a low voter turnout.

Williams has made a name for himself for, in part, 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.

Political implications

It’s unclear what impact all of this will have come 2017.

Williams has always run with party support and won by comfortable margins.

Political consultant Mark Nevins said some voters may find the gift disclosures distasteful now, but that may fade.

“In politics, memories tend to be short,” Nevins said. “So if this issue comes up now and takes three or four months to be resolved and the book is closed on it, then by the time the district attorney is up for re-election, people may have forgotten about it and it will be the responsibility of the challenger to remind them of it.”

No one has officially come forward to take on Williams in the Democratic primary, though many names have been discussed.

Given that Republicans are outnumbered seven-to-one in Philadelphia, the general election victor is usually a foregone conclusion.

In an email, Mustafa Rashed, a spokesman for Williams’ campaign committee, said the district attorney’s “record and results, especially in meaningful areas such as criminal justice reform, community based prosecution and reducing the prison population are the issues that have meaningful impact on the lives of Philadelphians.”

An incumbent district attorney hasn’t been knocked off since 1977, the year former Mayor Ed Rendell became the city’s top prosecutor

WHYY reporter Aaron Moselle contributed to this report. 

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