Settlement of civil rights complaint by former prosecutor still rankles Philly DA

 Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, in Philadelphia. Authorities say veteran Philadelphia homicide Detective Ronald Dove stashed his girlfriend out-of-state while colleagues sought her in the slaying of her ex-husband.  Dove has been indicted Thursday on charges that include obstruction, evidence tampering, flight and conspiracy. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, in Philadelphia. Authorities say veteran Philadelphia homicide Detective Ronald Dove stashed his girlfriend out-of-state while colleagues sought her in the slaying of her ex-husband. Dove has been indicted Thursday on charges that include obstruction, evidence tampering, flight and conspiracy. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

If Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams had his way, the city wouldn’t have paid a six-figure sum to a former prosecutor who accused Williams of discriminating against white employees.

“I didn’t think she should’ve gotten a penny,” Williams said in a phone interview. “But the city solicitor’s office did what they thought was in the best interest just to end what they thought was a nuisance lawsuit.”

He’s talking about a 34-page civil rights lawsuit (which can be found below) filed in May 2013 by former Assistant District Attorney MK Feeney, a white woman who was fired a few years before that. She was let go, Williams said, for leaking to the press the expunged arrest record of a prosecutor he had hired.

“It is inappropriate, possibly criminal, for people to share expunged criminal records,” said Williams.

Feeney denied involvement in the leak, while an African-American colleague admitted he was the source of the leak, according to the suit. The unnamed prosecutor, who has since left the district attorney’s office,  was a member of the same fraternity as Williams, Alpha Phi Alpha, and was only demoted for his actions, according to the suit. 

On Thursday, Williams, who is black, stood by his decision.  Williams said that the employee admitted to conspiring with Feeney, but showed remorse about the public disclosure.

“The other people who knew about it, this other employee that they talk about, came forward and said, ‘Yeah, we’re sorry. We shouldn’t have been involved with this because it was bad judgment,'” Williams said.

Feeney, who now has a private law practice in the city, didn’t back down from Williams’ latest remarks.

In an email, she said the suit should speak for itself.

“Like all citizens, Mr. Williams was entitled to his day in court. Instead of availing himself of that opportunity, he chose to settle for a substantial amount, an amount which exceeds his yearly salary,” said Feeney.

If her suit had truly been a nuisance lawsuit, she said, the city would not have paid $190,000 to settle the allegations.

“It is obvious that Mr. Williams is now attempting, years later, to go back and try to defend the claim of race discrimination in the media, and, in doing so, is employing an attack-the-victim approach,” Feeney said.

“But this is only after he didn’t have the courage to try the case in open court before a jury,” she continued. “I did have that courage.”

In the suit, Feeney claimed her termination was part of a trend, and she described how Williams wanted prosecutors in the office “to look like Philadelphians.”

To achieve that goal, she claimed in the suit, he provided extra perks to African-American prosecutors; disproportionately gave promotions to African-American prosecutors, even those who made questionable decisions in investigations; and demoted their white colleagues.

None of those allegations hold up, Williams said, adding that Feeney’s claims were driven by a personal animus.

“The employee was not fired because of her race,” said Williams, who spoke Thursday from Phoenix where he was attending a conference.

“The employee was given the option of resignation or termination because that employee gave information about an expunged police record to a reporter in the hopes of tarnishing the reputation of a colleague,” Williams said.

On June 23, 2011, Feeney was told she was fired for having not “been truthful” when she was questioned about the leak, her suit said. Soon after, police escorted her from the building, and she was barred from coming back.

Attention on the case was renewed after the Daily News on Tuesday published a report that the city settled Feeney’s case for $190,000. But, according to reporter Mensah M. Dean, the city’s top prosecutor had until that point been mum in the face of the allegations.

Days later, Williams published an op-ed in the paper, writing, “I want to set the record straight … I treat everyone in my office equally.”

Critics of Williams pointed out that the assertions in Feeney’s civil suit should be considered along with his comments to Philadelphia Magazine in September, when he remarked, “I assume white people are recovering racists.”

Asked about that statement, Williams walked it back.

“That was maybe a bad use of an academic argument that people make on college campuses, that men are recovering sexists, that people of power in a specific race are recovering racists,” Williams said. “I was really maybe being too esoteric and academic for the conversation I was having and the population I was speaking with.”

As Williams wrote in his Daily News opinion piece, “When I choose to discipline employees — men and women, black and white — to differing degrees, I’m not pro- or anti-anything. I’m attempting to be fair and not discriminatory.”

Two years after the settlement, it’s apparent that the matter is still not resolved for Williams.

“I’m still very upset at the mean-spirited nature of people who would try to share that information,” he said. “It had nothing to do with her race, her gender. It had to do with her behavior.”

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Feeney-v-Phila-Williams (PDF)

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