Political corruption is always hard to fathom. Sure, greed typically is the devil paving the road toward graft. But the potential consequences are so severe for persons held in high esteem you would think any sane politician would run from the risk. Especially a district attorney who prosecutes corrupt criminals, and knows their fate.
It can’t be greed alone that leads to public corruption. In Philadelphia, where one-party rule emboldens the corruptible, we know environment plays a role. The number of local politicians who have been indicted for crimes— if not convicted — suggests a city where too many elected officials think honesty is a tonic best administered in small doses.
Not even a mayor known for integrity could escape the innuendo of corruption. Reports that members of Michael Nutter’s administration lavishly spent cash without keeping proper records have thrown shade on his reputation. Nutter, who left office in 2016, disputes the allegations and questions why City Controller Alan Butkovitz never raised these concerns while he was mayor.
Shoddy bookkeeping, if it was only that, doesn’t come close to the alleged offenses of District Attorney Seth Williams, who is accused in a federal indictment of routinely accepting money and gifts in exchange for favorable treatment. How does the city’s top legal officer end up in such a predicament? Greed isn’t enough of an answer for someone who once seemed to have a bright future.
Williams hit the political scene like a blast of fresh mountain air breezing through a musty cow town. In 2005, the Inquirer Editorial Board endorsed him over his former boss, District Attorney Lynne Abraham, saying Williams was “a smart, personable lawyer who rightly criticizes the incumbent's record in bringing felony cases to trial [and] fighting municipal corruption.”
It was Williams’ corruption-fighting potential that impressed many on the board. Abraham’s excuse for not having been very active in that regard sounded like someone more concerned with politics than justice. She contended that because she was a Democrat there might a perception of a conflict of interest in any investigation of Democratic officeholders or party officials.
Williams promised he wouldn’t have similar qualms. Having worked in Abraham’s office for 10 years as an assistant DA, Williams also had a good plan to transform the agency into a more viable operation by taking prosecutors out of City Hall and putting them in community offices, where they could establish rapport with the police who patrolled neighborhoods and the people who lived in them.
“It’s time for a change,” said our editorial. But Williams lost. Mayor John Street appointed him the city’s inspector general, a typically anonymous post that Williams used to keep his name before the public. In 2008 he issued an IG report that accused Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. of obtaining an unauthorized severance package worth $30,000 when he left his job with the Philadelphia Commercial Development Corp. The report did little beyond besmirching Jones’ reputation. Abraham investigated the charges and concluded Jones had not violated any ethics or criminal laws.
In 2009, Williams again ran for district attorney; but not against Abraham, who was retiring after 18 years in the office. “My mantra is we have to be smart on crime, not just tough,” said Williams, making a vague reference to Abraham’s reputation in law enforcement as a “tough cookie.”
The Inquirer again recommended Williams, despite troubling reports that now seem prescient. Williams was accused of using $10,000 in campaign funds to repay his wife, who had filed for bankruptcy. He said the payments were election-related, half being made to restaurants where Williams said he had dined with potential donors. Williams beat a court challenge to his candidacy based on the expense reports and was elected the city’s first African American district attorney.
The Inquirer recommended Williams for reelection in 2013. He was praised for creating an elite team to investigate public corruption. Who could have dreamed that Williams would one day be a corruption target? His team included former state prosecutors Frank Fina and E. Mark Costanzo, who investigated the “Bonusgate” and “Computergate” schemes, which led to the respective corruption convictions of powerful State Reps. Mike Veon and John Perzel.
Fina and Costanzo had previously worked for former Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who accused them of targeting African American public officials in a corruption investigation that relied on information secretly recorded by an informant wearing a hidden device. Williams not only hired the duo but began his own investigation of the same politicians Kane had given a pass. Four of the six defendants pleaded guilty to taking cash and gifts and a fifth pleaded no contest. The sixth is still fighting the charges.
Again, who would have thought Philadelphia's DA would one day be accused of committing the same types of crimes as targets of his investigations? Williams said the politicians were motivated by greed. “They took money not because they were targeted, or tricked, or because of their race,” he said. “They took it because they wanted the money.”
The allegations against Williams suggest that’s all he wanted as well — cash, vacations, expensive furniture, and sideline Eagles tickets. If true, I don’t believe that was always the case.
Williams’ life is a Horatio Alger tale of a kid who overachieved. Put up for adoption soon after birth, he ended up in two foster homes before being adopted by a schoolteacher and shipyard secretary. He graduated from Central High School and Penn State University, where he was president of the Black Student Caucus, got his law degree from Georgetown, and became an assistant district attorney.
I’ve written before, most recently after the corruption conviction of former Congressman Chaka Fattah, that I take it personally when African American politicians are accused of crimes. I can’t help it. I grew up when black children were taught that whatever we did, good or bad, reflected on the entire race.
We knew how important it was to escape stereotypes of being lazy or promiscuous or larcenous. It’s still important. But some people, and not just crooked politicians, seem to forget that in their greed. Or is it just greed? Maybe it’s also that too many people in this city have become accustomed to politicians behaving badly.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor of the Inquirer.