Lawyers for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams tried Tuesday to depict city restaurateur Mike Weiss as a charitable guy — toward the city’s top prosecutor and droves of others.
Thomas Burke, a Williams defense attorney, asked Weiss about answers he gave federal investigators during three interviews before Williams’ federal corruption trial began.
“Did you say at one of those sessions that you like doing things for other people, that you provide airline tickets and gifts to friends all the time?” Burke said.
“Yes,” replied Weiss from the witness stand.
Prosecutors have portrayed Weiss as a Williams benefactor whose largess in the form of 16 round-trip plane tickets, a 1997 Jaguar convertible and cash loans was an attempt to win political favors. They included letters of recommendation and an appointment as a special adviser in the district attorney’s office — complete with an official badge.
On Tuesday, Burke tried to inject doubt into the government’s narrative by emphasizing that Weiss has long been active in city and state politics and that his gifts were never intended to yield the perks Williams gave him.
Weiss, who was convicted of a tax charge in a separate case, has not been charged with bribery. He is testifying against Williams under a court order that grants him immunity from prosecution based on his testimony.
Burke instructed Weiss to recite the political and civic affiliations he has held over the years, stretching back decades and several mayoral administrations.
The co-owner of the iconic Center City gay bar, Woody’s, mentioned many that were related to LGBT activism. One position included a seat on the Police Advisory Commission, a citizen oversight group, that included a badge. Burke underscored that feature.
“Having a badge was nothing new to you. You already had a badge,” Burke said.
“You didn’t give or offer trips to Seth Williams to get that special adviser position?” Burke said.
“Correct,” Weiss replied.
“You did that out of what?” Burke said.
“Because he asked,” Weiss said.
“Did you do it out of friendship?” continued Burke.
“Yes,” Weiss said.
Burke hoped to show the jury that Williams was not a corrupt politician bribed by Weiss and other wealthy influence-seekers. The two had a professional and good-humored relationship and ran in the same circle of Philadelphia politicos, Burke indicated.
Burke asked Weiss about a friend of his who had recently graduated from law school and was looking for a gig in the district attorney’s office.
“Did you ever call Seth and say, ‘Yo, Seth, I gave you all these trips, make this happen?'”
“No,” said Weiss.
The friend of Weiss in question was never hired by the office.
Weiss, Burke stressed, knew of Williams’ money woes. Williams’ $175,000 salary was being drained by alimony, sending his two daughters to Friends Central School — and another factor described by the district attorney.
“Princess is not helping with the electricity bills,” Williams wrote, in reference to his then-girlfriend, Stacey Cummings. Because Weiss was cognizant of how cash-strapped Williams was, he had no qualms paying for the district attorney’s airfare and other freebies, Burke said.
Burke then suggested to the jury that the many text messages between Williams and Weiss that have been read to the jury as evidence of a criminal quid-pro-quo relationship were just a select sampling, saying the two had a prolific texting relationship. Burke then recited dozens of banal texts that showcased something other than alleged felonious transactions.
“What does Little Sethy want for his birthday?” read one from Weiss.
“Honestly, whatever helps you or the city,” Weiss wrote to Williams in another text message. “I really do like making a difference.”
Weiss sent a text to Williams when he was elected district attorney in November 2009.
“Congrats on the win,” Weiss wrote. “You didn’t need my help, but when you run for mayor,” the text then included a smiling emoticon.
A few times, Judge Paul Diamond interrupted to urge Weiss, at times hesitant and touchy, to cut to the chase and answer more directly.
One of those instances occurred when Burke asked about Weiss’ tradition of paying for gifts for underserved children in Philadelphia, forcing Burke to get right to the Yuletide scene.
“Who did you ask to play Santa?” Burke said.
“Seth,” Weiss replied.
Questions from the prosecution
Prosecutor Eric Moran asked Weiss how many other public officials have received round-trip airfare from him, and Weiss stopped to ponder. He mentioned one plane ticket for state Sen. Larry Farnese. But Moran then reminded the jury that Weiss bought 16 for Williams.
Moran also reminded the panel of an answer Weiss gave on Monday when asked whether he plied Williams with gifts to win favors from the district attorney.
“In part,” Weiss said.
He also asked Weiss about the Brady Beach Bash in Wildwood attended by Weiss, his boyfriend, Williams and his two daughters during the time the district attorney was allegedly being bribed.
The five drove together in Williams’ city vehicle to get to the event thrown by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady of Philadelphia.
When Weiss had asked if his boyfriend could attend the beach shindig, Williams texted, “Tahoe with air-conditioning and a DVD of his choice.”
Other witnesses on Tuesday included Assistant District Attorney Edgar Jaramillo. Williams reached out to him about Mike Meyers, a DJ who faced drug and gun charges. Meyers performed at a club that was of interest to Bucks County businessman Muhammad Ali, another Williams benefactor.
“It seems like he has the possibility of being thrown out or continued. If it gets continued, I will then ask for the file and see what can be done to make it a county sentence,” Williams texted Jaramillo a day before a Meyers court date.
Prosecutors highlighted the unusual nature of the city’s top prosecutor intervening on such short notice in a garden-variety case.
Jaramillo wrote to Williams that his involvement at that stage of the proceeding would look “extremely suspicious.”
Meyers, however, did not receive a county sentence. A judge sentenced him to a year in state prison.
The last witness of the day was auto mechanic Armand Salloum, who went to high school with Williams. He was the district attorney’s go-to guy for car repairs.
Williams enlisted Salloum to help him sell the 1997 Jaguar that Weiss gave him.
“I love that car, but my girlfriend wants me to sell it because I had some other chick in it,” Williams texted to Salloum.
While the text was being read by Moran, Williams looked wide-eyed at the display screen, holding back a half-smirk.
Although Williams has paid Salloum for repairs, the district attorney currently has an outstanding balance for a battery replacement and some other work. And despite Salloum pestering Williams for the Jaguar’s title and a copy of the license of the car’s owner, Williams has not followed through.
“The car is still parked in the garage,” Salloum said.