Seth Williams: About those gifts

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    Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams faces a growing field of challengers in next year's Democratic primary.(Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams faces a growing field of challengers in next year's Democratic primary.(Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says he expects to win re-election next year “by a large majority” despite his failure to report $160,000 worth of gifts and a federal investigation into his personal and political finances.

    “I recognize my own personal finances weren’t the best, and I apologize to the citizens of Philadelphia for not having reported [gifts] every year,” Williams said, “but I think they’re to going to give me the benefit of the doubt and listen.”

    Williams wasn’t available for comment in August when he reported the $160,000 in gifts that should have been disclosed in annual reports, and he hasn’t had much to say about federal subpoenas served on his political action committee.

    I saw him outside a reception at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel during Pennsylvania Society weekend in New York, where politicians are plentiful and readily caught in the open. I approached him and he agreed to answer some questions – like, why would he accept all those gifts, including trips, tickets and cash?

    Some of it was travel for official business, he said. And some of it was because he faced financial pressures as his marriage broke up.

    “You know, when I had difficult financial times as a result of me trying to maintain a lifestyle for my daughters, keeping them in the school they were in, not having to sell the house where they were living, I’m very thankful that, you know, friends helped me out when I had difficulty with my gas bill,” he said.

    Free roof jobTaking gifts is one thing. Failing to report them as required by law is another.

    I asked how he failed to report the $45,000 roof repair from Mike Palmieri of Lynmar Builders in New Jersey. Did he just forget?

    “I didn’t forget,” he said. “I had an understanding with the gentleman.”

    Understanding?

    “You know, I always thought that in the future when my alimony and child support was over I was going to pay him back,” Williams said. “But since I didn’t have it in writing, I had to put it down as a gift, and I understand that.”

    Williams insisted no one who gave him gifts got anything in return, and that his amended reports cover all the gifts he received, even if many were disclosed years late.

    I asked if he could assure voters he’d done nothing wrong. Is he going to be charged by anybody for anything? “No, not at all,” he said.

    Even if the federal investigation fizzles, Williams could face enforcement actions from the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission and the Philadelphia Board of Ethics for his failure to disclose those gifts for years.

    Many ways to winWilliams said he looks forward to making the case that he’s done good things at the DA’s office – tracking the worst gun offenders and reducing violence, improving charging procedures at the office, developing a new policy for police shootings, and more.

    One thing that could work in Williams favor in the primary is a divided opposition – multiple opponents entering the race with little name recognition.

    So far, three candidates have announced for the Democratic primary: attorney Joe Khan, former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, and former city Managing Director Rich Negrin. Attorney Michael Untermeyer is also considering a run.

    “The more the merrier,” Williams said when I asked about the field.

    “I don’t own the job. It belongs to the people, and I hope they’ll listen,” he said. “With these four other people in the race, I’m going to win by a large majority.”

    Former assistant district attorney Beth Grossman is running for the Republican nomination.

    The filing deadline for Democrats and Republicans is March 7. The primary is May 16.

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