Describing himself as “merely a thankful beggar,” Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams sought thousands of dollars in bribes from deep-pocketed donors seeking his help with their legal woes, federal authorities said Tuesday as they unveiled a 23-count indictment charging the two-term Democrat in a sprawling corruption case.
Investigators accused the city’s cash-strapped top prosecutor of repeatedly selling his influence and offering to intervene in a case on behalf of one wealthy benefactor. In exchange, they said, Williams accepted luxury trips to foreign locales, a used Jaguar convertible, and other gifts including a $205 Louis Vuitton necktie and a Burberry watch.
When that was not enough to cover the costs of his lush life, Williams allegedly resorted to stealing from his own mother, draining more than $20,000 of Social Security and pension income intended to pay for her nursing home to cover his mortgage and electricity bills.
“The alleged misconduct … is brazen and wide-ranging, as is the idea that a district attorney would so cavalierly trade on elected office for financial gain,” FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Michael Harpster said at an afternoon news conference announcing the charges. “The immense authority vested to law enforcement has to be kept in check, and that requires decision-makers and leaders with a steady ethical compass.”
The criminal case brought to a head rumors that have dogged Williams for years and put a damning footnote on his eight-year career in office, which 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.
As he announced his decision last month to forgo a reelection bid, Williams, 50, apologized for bringing “embarrassment and shame” to the District Attorney’s Office through repeated ethical lapses and vowed to win back the trust of the public and his employees.
But hours after Tuesday’s indictment, Williams offered no indication whether he now intended to resign. His lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, vowed that Williams would fight the charges in court.
“Mr. Williams vehemently denies that he ever compromised any investigation, case, or law enforcement function,” he said.
Sources familiar with the course of the investigation said Williams rejected a plea deal from prosecutors earlier this week. He spent the day at home with his family, an office spokesman said, and was expected to surrender and be arraigned Wednesday afternoon.
Inside Williams’ office of 300 prosecutors, the allegations hit like a bomb. In an internal memo, his top deputy, Kathleen Martin, assured the staff that the office was cooperating with the investigation and that no other employees had been accused of wrongdoing.
“I understand and appreciate that you may be angry and frustrated with the unwanted spotlight placed upon our office, emotions that you are certainly justified in feeling,” she wrote.
Outside, the city’s political and legal leaders offered swift condemnation.
Mayor Kenney called Williams’ alleged actions “deeply shameful” and a “flagrant violation of the law.”
"At a time when our citizens’ trust in government is at an all-time low, it is disheartening to see yet another elected official give the public a reason not to trust us," the mayor said in a statement. "That this comes at the head of our justice system is even more troubling.”
Deborah R. Gross, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, called for Williams to step aside immediately.
“The charges against him cast a shadow on the District Attorney’s Office, our legal community, and the entire City of Philadelphia. It truly is an embarrassment," she said.
The case against Williams, which involves charges of honest services fraud and other bribery-related counts, hardly came as a surprise.
Known to frequent cigar bars and the tony Union League, Williams has been open about his financial problems since the FBI and the IRS began poking into his finances two years ago. He has complained of his inability to pay alimony stemming from a 2011 divorce and private-school tuition for his daughters, despite his salary of $175,572 a year.
In January, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics assessed the largest fine in its 10-year history for Williams’ failure to report for years more than $175,000 in gifts he had accepted including a new roof, luxury vacations, Eagles sidelines passes, and use of a defense attorney’s home in Florida.
Williams, as investigators outlined the case Tuesday, was not shy about asking for handouts.
“I am merely a thankful beggar and don’t want to overstep my bounds in asking,” he wrote in one February 2012 text message to a donor in reference to a second planned Caribbean vacation on the donor's tab. He told another in 2013 that he “never want[ed] to feel like a drag on your wallet,” yet he allegedly returned again and again to seek the man’s help in paying for trips to California, Florida, and Las Vegas.
Some of those gifts featured prominently in Tuesday’s indictment, including a $3,000 trip Williams took in 2012 with his then-girlfriend to the Dominican Republic, where they stayed in a presidential suite complete with access to a private beach and personal butler.
The excursion was bankrolled by Mohammad N. Ali, a Bucks County businessman who sold old prepaid telephone cards and who, according to the indictment, spared no expense in showering Williams with other gifts, including a $3,212 custom sofa and cash payments of $9,000.
In exchange, prosecutors say, Williams offered to help one of Ali’s friends who faced criminal charges by drafting a plea deal that would shorten the man’s sentence and keep him out of the state prison system.
Prosecutors did not say Tuesday whether Williams ever followed through with his promise. Ali did not respond to requests for comment.
“In the future,” he told Ali in an August 2012 text message quoted in the indictment, “always give me at least a week to help a friend. I have no problem looking at anything.”
In other instances, Williams allegedly offered to intervene with other law enforcement offices on behalf of his friends. Ali purportedly sought his help a year later to avoid enhanced TSA screening as he returned to Philadelphia International Airport from trips abroad.
Another donor – Michael Weiss, co-owner of Woody's, a well-known Center City gay bar – allegedly sought the district attorney’s help in untangling a legal mess for another bar he owned in California.
Authorities in that state attempted in 2013 to revoke Weiss’ liquor license after discovering that he had pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges in three years earlier.
But Williams, according to the indictment, wrote a letter vouching for Weiss and, in an effort to prove his friend’s upstanding character, appointed him as a special adviser to the District Attorney's Office, complete with a badge and leather carrying case.
Weiss showed his gratitude, prosecutors said Tuesday, by paying for spring-break vacations to Florida and San Diego for Williams and his daughters. He also gave Williams his old 1997 Jaguar XK8 convertible worth $4,160, the indictment says.
Weiss did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
“Dude,” Williams reportedly texted Weiss. “I never want to feel like a drag on your wallet … but we are ALWAYS ready for an adventure.”
Williams’ prosecution is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey, after Justice Department officials in Philadelphia recused themselves because of their frequent collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office.