To the naked eye, it appeared that Seth Williams was all alone when he stepped behind a squat lectern on the second floor of the District Attorney’s Office on Friday morning to pronounce his once-promising career all but dead.
Yet as Williams read from written remarks – pausing occasionally to steady a shaky voice – it became clear that two versions of Philadelphia’s top prosecutor lurked within his pin-stripe shirt and navy suit: the ambitious people-pleaser who nobly wanted to reinvent a stagnant office, and the self-destructive controversy magnet who never grasped that most of his problems were of his own creation.
He began the news conference with an exclamation point, declaring he was abandoning a run for a third term -- a campaign that he was very much committed to only a few days earlier. It’s hard to overstate how unthinkable this moment would have been in 2010, when Williams first took office and local political observers were practically tripping over themselves to heap praise on the city’s bright, young, new DA.
But anyone who has paid even passing attention to the headlines that have been attached to Williams’ name during the last few years could tell you that things were going to end badly for him sooner or later. An ever-growing number of scandals eroded nearly every conceivable base of support that he had in the city’s political and law-enforcement circles.
The FBI and IRS have been investigating his finances since 2015. And in late August, the Inquirer reported that Williams had failed to disclose $160,500 worth of gifts he received between 2010 and 2015. That mind-boggling omission earned Williams a record $62,000 fine from the city Board of Ethics.
He solemnly pledged to always hold “deep regret” in his heart for the continual distractions and embarrassment that his actions caused the office. But in a familiar move, Williams pivoted and pointed a metaphorical finger at reporters in the room by telling an odd anecdote about a recently held news conference that addressed enhancements to the office’s Conviction Review Unit. “But the first five questions were about me receiving gifts. Not about safety. Not about justice,” he said, giving way to a dramatic pause. “The questions were about gifts.”
The implication was that such questions were trite, if not ridiculous. On display in that moment was a trait that friends, rivals, and former colleagues all say is Williams’ Achilles' heel, the blind spot that set in motion his staggering fall from grace. Every time Williams’ decision-making came under critical examination -- whether by peers or the media -- he recoiled and blamed his problems on outside forces that were surely conspiring against him. “He just didn’t understand the stage that he was on,” said one former high-ranking city prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He always felt that the scrutiny was undeserved.”
He was once, after all, the definition of a rising star, a charismatic former city prosecutor who briefly served as the city’s inspector general before setting his sights on taking the reins of an office that needed a shot of adrenaline. Perhaps he would top the 19 years that his onetime mentor, Lynne M. Abraham, spent as district attorney. Or maybe he’d become a mayor, or senator, or congressman – nothing was off the table, given the universal goodwill that greeted Williams when he first took office.
He vowed to bring progressive reforms to the office, long before such attitudes were commonplace in law-enforcement circles. He sped up the pace of investigations into police-involved shootings, shifted the DA’s Office and the courts to a community-based alignment, and boosted felony conviction rates, which had tumbled to unthinkable depths under Abraham, an issue that was the subject of a four-part Inquirer series in 2009.
The DA’s Office also adopted policies aimed at giving second chances to first-time offenders and fines to anyone arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana. “At his core, he’s a bright, intelligent and considerate person,” said State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, who has known Williams for more than 30 years. “He did a lot of good and positive things for the DA’s Office.”
These achievements were meant to form the foundation of a career that lasted decades. But Williams, the city soon learned, was incapable of going long stretches without becoming embroiled in controversies or scandals. His first term was punctuated by allegations that he’d reportedly hired a girlfriend at a salary that dwarfed those earned by young prosecutors. “I was embarrassed to walk through the lobby,” said one former city prosecutor. “We had [assistant district attorneys] who hadn’t had raises in three or four years. But Seth just didn’t grasp that.”
The last two years, in particular, seemed to find Williams in an embattled state on a near-constant basis. He feuded publicly with then-Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane over a political bribery case involving a handful of Philadelphia Democrats; Kane had rejected the matter over unfounded claims of racial bias, but Williams chose to adopt and prosecute the case. Last year, in an interview with Philadelphia Magazine, Williams suggested that Kane was to blame for the FBI and IRS investigations into his campaign finances and a nonprofit he created. "I think it kind of goes without saying," he said.
He hired three former state prosecutors, all of whom became embroiled – to varying degrees – in the appalling Porngate email scandal, and then resisted calls from activists and female politicians, such as City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, to fire the three men. One in particular, Frank Fina, had sent and received racist, sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic emails to other members of law-enforcement circles while he worked for the Attorney General's Office years earlier.
Bass was yet another longtime friend who tried to reason with Williams about the damage he was causing himself by refusing to fire the three prosecutors. "I never got the sense that he really listened," she said. "If anything, it was the opposite. He didn't hear what people were saying. To try and blithely sweep that under the rug is just not going to work in the city of Philadelphia, especially in times like these."
When he wasn’t fuming about Kane, Williams watched as a supporter like John McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, became one of his loudest critics. Williams declined to press charges last year against former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who was involved in an alcohol-fueled brawl with a handful of off-duty Philly cops at an Old City club.
McNesby seized on the fact that one of the gifts Williams forgot to report between 2010 and 2015 was sideline game-day passes to Eagles games, dubbing him a “morally and ethically challenged sideline playboy.” McNesby vowed to do everything in the union’s power to help another candidate unseat Williams in the upcoming district attorney’s race. In case Williams doubted McNesby’s sincerity, the union created lawn signs and billboards that read: “Help Wanted: New Philadelphia District Attorney.”
“Our problem with him was that there was never any line of communication or cooperation anywhere,” McNesby said. “Look, we applaud him for dropping out of the race. Hopefully things work out for him, and he lands somewhere in private practice.”
There were, amazingly, other headaches along the way. In August, Williams’ ex-girlfriend, Stacey Cummings, was charged with a pair of misdemeanors for slashing tires on two city-owned security vehicles that were parked in front of Williams’ Overbrook home in November 2015. The incident went uninvestigated by police until the Inquirer began asking about the curious bit of vandalism.
The city's first black DA couldn't even win over Black Lives Matter activists, who went shopping for a challenger. As the headlines continued to pile up, Williams lost the support of the all-powerful Democratic City Committee.
It became clear even to Seth Williams that he had only one option left. It was time to pull the plug.