Seth Williams’ political aide on his spending habits: ‘We couldn’t pay our phone bills’

 Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams leaves federal court Wednesday. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams leaves federal court Wednesday. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

Jurors in the federal bribery, fraud and extortion trial of Seth Williams have heard days of testimony about how the Philadelphia district attorney allegedly sold the influence of the office to wealthy benefactors. On Wednesday, prosecutors described another aspect of their case against Williams: How he used campaign donor money to support his extravagant lifestyle. 

A revitalizing deep-tissue massage for $120. A workout program known as a “fitness and insanity” that cost $180. A facial and a body rub worth $222.

Francis Cassidy, general manager at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue, confirmed to the court that these tabs and scores of others amounting to thousands of dollars were charged to gym. Footing the bill? The district attorney’s political action committee.

Against that backdrop, came another accounting of gifts that jurors are aware of, including a $300 iPad given to Williams by suburban businessman and alleged briber Muhammad Ali, whom prosecutors reminded the jury also bankrolled a $3,000 vacation in February 2012 to Punta Cana for the district attorney. 

If the gifts were reported earlier, “it would have raised concerns for us,” testified Michael Cooke, the director of enforcement for the Philadelphia Board of Ethics.

These and many other gifts first came to public light when Williams filed amended disclosure forms last August, about a year before being federally indicted. Earlier this year, the Ethics Board levied a $62,000 penalty against Williams for his lack of reporting income and gifts. 

“There has never been an agreement that accessed a penalty of this size on a city officer by a large margin,” Cooke told the court.

The belated 34-page document chronicled some $160,000 in previously unreported gifts across six years.

“Does it say Jaguar anywhere in there?” said U.S. Assistant Attorney Eric Moran, referring to a gift from a second alleged briber, Gayborhood restaurateur Mike Weiss.

“No,” Cooke replied, suggesting to the jury that the late disclosures did not encompass all that Williams had failed to report in a timely fashion.  

The defense team has not yet begun the cross-examination of Cooke, but when defense lawyer Thomas Burke started questioning Cassidy from the Bellevue, he handed him an edition of the magazine the sports club used to publish featuring a buff Williams in a tank top on the cover.

Burke then flipped through the pages to show the court the lengthy Williams story about his physical transformation, including several photos of Williams smiling on gym benches in workout gear

Lisette Gonzalez, a New Jersey mental health professional who formerly ran Williams’ political action committee, wondered about how ethical it was for the PAC to be paying for all the time the district attorney was spending at the gym. 

“You couldn’t use it for personal gain, or personal use,” Gonzalez said of state campaign finance rules governing PACs.

Knowing that, it gave Gonzalez real pause when she saw a $2,674 charge to the PAC to support a birthday party for Williams’ ex-girlfriend, Stacey Cummings.

Gonzalez was on vacation on the April 2015 date of the party. Yet even if she were around, she said that she would’ve skipped the bash.

“I actually didn’t agree with the expenditure,” Gonzalez told the court. “I thought it was a personal expenditure.”

Prosecutor Moran went over many other items routinely billed to Williams’ PAC, including thousands of dollars of gym membership fees that included the deep-tissue massages and facials at the sporting club, reading them aloud one by one. 

There were also regular charges from the members-only Union League of Philadelphia, which were always billed as “membership dues and meetings,” Gonzalez said.

At one point, she cautioned Williams that the pace and volume of spending were getting out of control.

“What I said was, you have to be careful with what we’re spending at the Union League,” Gonzalez said. “Because we had bills to pay.”

Gonzalez, who was paid $1,000 a month plus a portion of what she raised for the PAC, said the committee’s financial stability wildly fluctuated.

“We had times when we were doing well financially,” she said. “There were other times when we couldn’t pay our phone bills. There were times when I didn’t get paid.”

That’s no way to do business, she said, and working in an environment that unstable was personally upsetting and aggravated her own financial woes. In October 2011, she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection after accruing significant mortgage and credit card debt. 

When prosecutor Moran asked if the questionable spending bothered her, Gonzales said: “Absolutely.” 

And though Moran called the Union League and Bellevue spending sharply into question, Burke intimated to the jury that both affiliations helped lift the political stature of Williams.

“Would you say the Union League is a good place to meet max donors? Burke asked Gonzalez. “How about the sporting club?”

Going to a posh gym, Burke suggested, helped Williams hobnob with influential people, but hitting the benchpress wasn’t bad for Williams career, either, Burke insisted.

“Do you think that trimming down and getting fit and getting more in shape makes him more electable?”

The defense team’s cross-examination of Cooke of the Board of Ethics will resume on Thursday.

Judge Paul Diamond told the court that the trial will recess on Friday and pick back up on the Wednesday after the Fourth of July.

Williams, 50, the city’s first African-American district attorney, is close to the end of his second term as the city’s top prosecutor. In February, he announced he would not seek reelection.

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