In one fell swoop, now-former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has pleaded guilty to bribery, resigned from office, and he is now jailed.
Initially charged with 29 counts of bribery, extortion and fraud in a federal indictment, Williams denied for months that he had exchanged legal favors for bribes. But Thursday afternoon, in a stunning courtroom development, Williams pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe from wealthy businessman Mohammed Ali. The plea deal required Williams to resign as District Attorney. Williams also admitted to the additional conduct described in the federal indictment against him, and was immediately led away in handcuffs.
The former D.A. faces up to five years in prison when U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond sentences him on Oct. 24.
Given that Williams took money meant for his ailing mother’s nursing home care, solicited vacations, cash and other goods from two wealthy businessmen, and then used the powers of his office to do favors for his benefactors, I am certain that the guilty plea was warranted. But I’m still incredibly angry.
I’m angry because Seth Williams pursued charges against five black public officials who accepted, but did not report, small gifts from Tyron Ali, a lobbyist who turned out to be a government informant. Williams pursued and won convictions against those officials, knowing all the while that he’d collected $175,000 in unreported gifts from two wealthy businessmen.
I’m angry because when his own misdeeds became public, Williams repeatedly told me in radio interviews that he wanted the black community to forgive him. He assured my listeners that what he had done was not the same thing he prosecuted others for doing.
Clearly, he was right. Seth Williams actions were not the same as former traffic court judge Thomasine Tynes taking a $2000 Tiffany’s bracelet. Nor were his actions the same as former state Rep. Ron Waters taking $1000 in cash.
Seth Williams’ actions were far worse.
Not only did Williams sell official favors in exchange for a used Jaguar, vacations, cash and other trinkets. Williams stole money meant to pay for his mother’s nursing home care, misused campaign funds, and drove city cars for personal use. But more than that, he did it all while assuring the black community that he was seeking justice on our behalf.
“I come on here all the time and tell you that it’s important to hold people accountable for having violated our laws,” Seth Williams told me last year in a Dec. 22 interview on my morning show on WURD radio.
He was talking about Donte Rollins — a young man Williams helped to free after Rollins was falsely imprisoned for 10 years in the shooting of a six-year-old.
In reality, though, Williams could have been talking about himself.
He must be held accountable not only for the crimes he has committed, but also for the dreams he has dashed.
A community that hoped the city’s first black District Attorney would help to exonerate more young men like Donte Rollins elected Seth Williams. We elected him because we were desperately in need of an advocate—someone who would understand what it means to be an African American in the criminal justice system.
It is a system where blacks are more likely to be arrested for crimes that yield slaps on the wrist for our white counterparts. It is a system in which we are more likely to be charged, convicted, and face harsher sentences than whites charged with similar offenses.
In short, it is a system that is awash in racism, and we hoped that through Seth Williams, we would finally gain a measure of justice. We didn’t, and that angers me, because even as I joined others in the black community in praying for Williams, I now face the reality that his actions have hurt us all.
Today, as I grapple with the fact that Philadelphia’s first black District Attorney is awaiting his October sentencing for a bribery charge that could yield him years behind bars, I recall the words Williams uttered in that December interview.
“It’s a terrible retirement plan being in jail for 10 years,” he said as he reflected on Donte Rollins’ odyssey in the prison system. “But we have to pray for him,” Williams added.
The difference, though, is that Rollins was innocent. Williams, by his own admission, is guilty.
As a man of faith, I will pray that he receives mercy. But as a black man, I’ll pray that justice is done.
Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 7 to 10 am on WURD Radio