In another welcome break with his predecessor, District Attorney Seth Williams is moving ahead with plans for city prosecutors to target corruption among elected officials, city workers and contractors doing business with City Hall. Williams is putting out the word to federal prosecutors and other watchdog agencies that “the DA’s office is willing to look at these cases, too,” according to Curtis Douglas, Williams’ deputy of investigations. A district attorney willing to go after bad guys in City Hall: Imagine that?
For the last two decades, though, it was the policy of the former district attorney not to pursue such cases. Lynne M. Abraham said she couldn’t go after other elected and appointed public officials suspected of wrongdoing because she had to rely on them and the city’s dominant Democratic Party when running for reelection. During his campaign for district attorney last year, Williams rightly described Abraham’s stance as “an embarrassment and an abdication of responsibility.” Indeed, what reputable politician — even in Philadelphia — could begrudge a district attorney who rooted out rogue officials, knowing full well that corruption threatens to taint everyone in public service?
Fortunately, Williams has pledged to fight municipal corruption. Coupled with the housecleaning efforts already being done by Mayor Nutter’s watchdogs — Inspector General Amy L. Kurland and Joan L. Markman, the chief integrity officer — Williams’ initiative bodes well for continuing efforts to raising ethical standards in city government. The focus is a natural outgrowth of Williams’ own tenure as inspector general, which means he should be well positioned to build on relationships developed in that role with the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and state attorney general. Williams’ plan to convene a “corruption task force” with federal and city officials is a good opening move, if only to establish clear lines of communication to share tips on possible areas to investigate.
Upon taking office, Williams decided that, due to other staffing demands, he would not set up a promised single-purpose municipal corruption unit. He has opted to leave these cases under the supervision of Douglas’ investigations unit. That’s OK, but it will be all the more important that Williams guard against letting any public corruption probes he undertakes languish despite the crush of other criminal cases. For now, the new district attorney has sent an important message to officials and citizens alike that there’s a another much-needed set of eyes watching the city’s corruption-prone political culture.