Philly DA Seth Williams: Brought 'shame' to office, won't run for reelection

Philadelphia District Attorney
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced he would not run for a third term Friday, saying, "I have made regrettable mistakes in my personal life and personal financial life that cast an unnecessary shadow" over the office.

Apologizing for “embarrassment and shame” he brought to his office with a series of ethical and financial missteps, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said Friday that he would not seek reelection to a third term.

The 50-year-old prosecutor made the announcement at a hastily called morning news conference, where he took no questions and referred only obliquely to an ongoing federal investigation into his personal and political spending.

Sources familiar with the progress of that probe said Friday that it was rapidly nearing completion. 

 “I have made regrettable mistakes in my personal life and my personal financial life that cast an unnecessary shadow over the District Attorney’s Office,” Williams said, standing alone at a lectern facing a phalanx of reporters.

His recent controversies, he added, have “brought much embarrassment, shame and adverse publicity to me and, unfortunately, to the office, which I love.”

Williams’ decision to bow out of the race leaves wide open the May 16 primary contest to replace him. Five candidates who have announced their intention to seek the job so far.

It also sets an expiration date on Williams’ eight-year career in office – one that began in 2010 with accolades for sweeping changes he promised to implement within the city’s justice system, only to be overshadowed more recently by a series of scandals involving his money, his dating life, and his at-times-controversial personnel decisions.

Last month, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics levied a $62,000 fine against Williams – the largest in its history – for his failure to report gifts he had accepted worth more than $175,000, including a new roof, luxury vacations, Eagles sidelines passes, and the use of a defense attorney’s home in the Florida Keys.

Williams said Friday he intended to serve out his term in his $175,000-a-year job through January.

 “I will spend the balance of my term trying to regain [the public’s] trust, the trust that I have lost, and will continue to make this office better than it was when I arrived,” he said.

Elected officials responded cautiously to Williams’ decision even as the city’s political gossip mill had already turned toward discussion of potential replacements should his legal troubles prompt an early resignation.

“I respect his decision,” Mayor Kenney said. “I thank him for the years of service that he’s given to the city.”

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, said Williams' announcement caught him by surprise.

Still, Brady said, “I think it was the best thing to happen. Maybe his problems will be over.”

But Williams’ legal troubles show little sign of abating.

For at least a year and a half, the FBI and IRS have been rooting around in his financial history and money problems that he has said began with his 2011 divorce from his wife, Sonita, and private school tuition for his three daughters.

A federal grand jury subpoenaed records from Williams’ political campaign fund in 2015. Similar requests went out last year to the Second Chance Foundation, a nonprofit Williams founded to benefit at-risk children, youths, and families.

Campaign contributors, volunteers, and staffers in the District Attorney’s Office have also reported being approached by federal agents in recent months.

Among them was Robert Herdelin, a real estate investor who said in June that he had rented a house in Drexel Hill for years to Williams’ ex-wife at a below-market rate as a favor to the district attorney.

Even without the federal probe, Williams was facing a potentially bruising re-election battle.

Long-standing disagreements with the city’s police union prompted the Fraternal Order of Police last month to take out billboards along I-95 advocating against his reelection.

Meanwhile, an appellate court last year overturned what was perhaps the signature prosecution of Williams' tenure – the conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn, the first Catholic Church official ever charged in the United States with covering up clergy sex abuse. The District Attorney’s Office is seeking to retry the case.

At his news conference Friday, Williams sought to keep focus on his accomplishments, ticking off a list of changes implemented during his tenure, including improvements in felony conviction rates, programs to divert nonviolent offenders, and efforts to decriminalize low-level drug offenses.

He became teary-eyed as he recounted his rise from his days as a young orphan in Cobbs Creek to his series of election victories -- first as student body president at Pennsylvania State University and then in his bid to become the first black man to serve as the city’s top prosecutor.

“Only in America, only in Philadelphia, could a kid given up for adoption at birth, placed in an orphanage, then in two foster homes, aspire to become the district attorney – to have complete discretion about who gets arrested, who gets charged, who has an arrest warrant, who has a death warrant,” he said.

Williams also bristled at recent coverage of his office, which he accused of focusing too much on his legal woes and too little on the work of his staff.

He cited a news conference Wednesday, organized to announce steps he had taken to beef up a unit reviewing convictions for possible mistakes. As soon as the presentation ended, reporters immediately besieged him with questions about his integrity, his qualifications for remaining in office, and whether he planned to resign.

He grappled with their inquiries that day for several minutes. Faced with a similar barrage Friday, Williams tried a new strategy: walking swiftly and silently away.

 Staff writers Chris Palmer and Emily Babay contributed to this article.