Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams maintained a gainful relationship with suburban businessman Muhammad Ali, but it’s a stretch to call Ali’s friendly gestures a crime, according to the district attorney’s defense team — especially when the Bucks County man had so little to show for his generosity.
Williams’ lawyers made that point in his ongoing federal corruption trial, which finished its fourth day Friday.
Defense lawyer Thomas Burke worked to show that the government’s alleged quid-pro-quo between Ali and Williams is a fiction.
Rather, the two were genuine friends who first met at a campaign event in 2009 when Williams was running to be the city’s top prosecutor, he said. And, over time, their bond grew.
Ali had a knack for opulent living that included frequent meals at swanky restaurants and foreign travel. Turns out, Williams did, too. So the two would dine together or share cigars at the exclusive Union League of Philadelphia. Ali also bankrolled a Caribbean trip complete with Swedish massages and parasailing along sunny beachscapes.
“Seth was my friend, but did I need things from him? Also yes,” Ali testified, prompting Burke to ask him whether he was using Williams.
“It’s not using,” Ali said. “I’m sure he expected things from me, and I expected things from him.”
There are chiefly three times when prosecutors allege Williams acted in his official capacity as district attorney to assist Ali.
Authorities say Williams tried to help Ali, a native of Jordan who regularly traveled abroad, to zip pass secondary security screenings at Philadelphia’s airport.
Secondly, Williams looked into criminal charges a DJ was facing after Ali — who was considering investing in the club the DJ was connected to — sought Williams’ assistance at the request of some of the club’s stakeholders.
And finally, prosecutors said, Williams tried to aid Ali’s wife from Belarus as she was applying for U.S. citizenship.
Yet in each case, Burke said, Williams never ordered anyone to do anything, nor did Williams’ actions affect the outcome in any of the three situations.
“You know the value of the dollar,” Burke said to Ali. “What are you even getting out of it?”
Cash vs. checks
If Ali were really aiming to bribe Williams, he would have given him cash rather than checks, Burke said.
“If you were trying to cover your tracks, you could have given him cash, right?” Burke said.
One $7,000 check in particular was a loan, not a bribe, Ali said.
If so, why didn’t Ali ever ask for the money back, Burke asked.
“If I would have asked him, that might kinda throw a little cold water on our relationship,” Ali told the court. “I wouldn’t be able to ask him for help again if another issue occurred.
“He’s a DA. And if I encounter problems, I have someone I can ask.”
Burke hoped one of the jury’s takeaways was that Ali and Williams did not have merely a transactional relationship. It was more than that, he said. When Burke asked Ali if he considered Williams a friend, Ali replied, “I believe so. That’s how he made me feel.”
Federal officials had been investigating Ali on suspicion of money laundering, but he was never charged with that crime, a point Burke has repeatedly emphasized to the jury.
After Ali’s Feasterville home was raided in 2015 and investigators discovered his link to Williams, the wealthy businessman became a part of the federal probe of Williams.
Ali pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion in a deal with the government in which he agreed to be a witness in the trial of his former friend and beneficiary.
On Friday, Burke underscored this arrangement to the panel of 10 women and two men.
“You need to tell this jury that you were bribing Seth Williams so you won’t have to go to jail very long, or at all,” Burke said.
Ali pushed back, dismissing the suggestion that he was being coerced to speak in order to avoid jail time. Ali said he was merely telling the truth because it’s the right thing to do.
“And who decides the truth?” Burke said. “The government.”
Still, Ali said, after being arrested by federal officials, he did know that “cooperation is always safer for me.”
The government also called as a witness Lt. Kenyatta Lee of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office who testified about Williams’ use of a 2015 Chevy Tahoe that was part of a federally supported drug control program.
Williams’ off-the-clock use of the vehicle, Lee said, ran against federal guidelines, and he said he reported it to his superiors — but never brought it to Williams’ attention directly.
Rachel Kimmich, the director of human resources in the district attorney’s office, also took the stand Friday. Prosecutors had her read email exchanges she had with Williams over city and state ethics forms and financial disclosure requirements. Kimmich testified that Ali’s many gifts were never reported.
Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond that the case against Williams may conclude next week. If so, Diamond said, the court will recess until after the Fourth of July, then the defense of Williams will began.
On Monday, prosecutors are expected to call Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan to the stand about his contact with Ali at the request of Williams.