Line between favors, friendship blurs at Philly DA Seth Williams' trial

Mohammad N. Ali – Seth Williams’ jet-setting, Bentley-driving, energy drink-peddling benefactor – endured hours of tough questioning Friday as the district attorney’s lawyers sought to paint him as a craven opportunist who threw unsolicited money and gifts at the city’s top prosecutor in an attempt to come off like “a big shot.”

In a pointed cross-examination, defense lawyer Thomas Burke suggested that not only did Ali use Williams at the front end of their friendship – seeking access to a powerful man who could help him with his legal woes – but also hoped to avoid prison for his own crimes by turning against his pal.

And as Ali, a soft-spoken Jordan native, wrapped up six hours of testimony over two days in Williams’ federal bribery and corruption trial, he appeared conflicted about his relationship with the defendant.

“Seth was my friend,” he said. “Did I need things from him? Yes. But that’s not using. I’m sure he expected things from me, too.”

As prosecutors describe it, Williams’ expectations of their friendship were clear. And Ali – a slickly dressed go-getter who made millions selling prepaid cellphone cards and energy drinks – is a linchpin witness in their case. His testimony came as part of a deal struck after he pleaded guilty last month to charges of bribery and tax evasion.

Ali told jurors Thursday that he helped the cash-strapped district attorney live a lifestyle he couldn’t afford, showering him with gifts that included designer accessories, pricey dinners, and an all-expenses-paid trip to a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic.

In exchange, Ali said, he routinely called on Williams for aid when he faced legal problems, such as when his Belarusian wife’s citizenship application was rejected on suspicion that their marriage was a sham.

But Burke, in his cross-examination, attempted to muddy that government depiction of a clean quid pro quo.

Ali testified he gave Williams a $7,000 loan in 2013 to cover his energy bills on the same day that Williams arranged a meeting for him with a top Philadelphia Police Department official. But, he told the jury of 10 women and two men, at the time he didn’t think of it as a bribe.

“Mr. Burke, I didn’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘This is what I’m going to do for Seth so he can do this thing for me,’ ” Ali replied. “I liked him, and I think he liked me.”

Ali described the bond between him and Williams as one developed quickly over eight months starting in 2010.

They shared personal stories, Ali said, including their shared experiences with what they believed to be racial profiling – in Ali’s case the invasive secondary screenings he endured nearly every time he returned to Philadelphia International Airport from overseas trips.

A federal agent revealed from the witness stand Thursday that Ali drew that extra scrutiny because he was under investigation for possible money laundering, though he was never charged.

But Burke contended that Ali’s request for Williams to look into what he described as his “airport problem” didn’t step over the line.

“You’re telling him you’re a victim of racial profiling – that’s a crime, isn’t it?” he asked Ali. “Who’s the right guy to report that crime to? The district attorney, correct?”

Prosecutors allege that Williams did more than just investigate. He set Ali up with then-Capt. Joe Sullivan, the head of the Police Department’s Homeland Security Unit, who later sent officers to escort Ali through a secondary screening on a subsequent trip through the airport.

“They actually showed up with a wheelchair,” Burke said Friday. “Because they thought they were picking up Muhammad Ali, the boxer.”

Sullivan, who is expected to testify Monday, later withdrew his support and the extra security screenings resumed.

Later, when Ali sought Williams’ intervention in a drug case filed against a friend – a Center City nightclub DJ – Williams again said he would review the matter.

Though it turned out to be too late to affect the case, Williams texted Ali in 2012 that he had “no problem looking into anything.”

“Always give me at least a week to help a friend,” he wrote.

Burke suggested in questioning, however, that prosecutors had made too much of that exchange.

“He said he would look at it,” the lawyer said. “As the district attorney, he’s allowed to look at it.”

Many of Burke’s inquiries Friday proceeded down a two-pronged path.

On the one hand, he suggested, there was nothing improper about the gifts between two close friends. On the other, he said, for all the money Ali claimed he poured into Williams over the year, he didn’t get much of a return on his investment

“He was not able to help you at the airport? He was not able to help you with” the friend’s drug case? “And he wasn’t able to help you with the citizenship problems with your wife?” the lawyer asked. “So, in all the years that you have been friends, he hasn’t been able to do anything for you.”

Ali offered only one word in response: “Correct.”

Keep up with developments in Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams’ case with our day-by-day recaps and our explainer on everything you need to know about the case.