Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams had a lot on his plate on Feb. 22, 2012.
A day earlier, a team of his prosecutors had begun jury selection in the Common Pleas Court trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn, a top aide to Cardinal Justin F. Rigali who had been charged with child endangerment for his investigation and supervision of Catholic priests implicated in the clergy child sex-abuse scandal.
And that day, Williams was calling on another arm of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, getting his 80-year-old mother, Imelda, into the St. Francis Country House nursing home in Darby Borough.
As of Tuesday, those issues were still on Williams’ plate. Since Lynn’s 2012 conviction was overturned, Williams’ office and attorneys for Lynn have been back in Superior Court arguing over a judge’s ruling involving Lynn’s retrial on the charge. Imelda Williams, ailing with Parkinson’s disease, is at St. Francis, now known as the St. Francis Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare. And her son’s alleged mishandling of money earmarked for her care was the topic of the first day of testimony in Williams’ federal corruption trial.
Kathleen DeFriece, director of accounts receivable for St. Francis and five other archdiocesan geriatric facilities, testified about what she described as a frustrating, 10-month campaign to get Seth Williams to respond to the nursing home’s need to have his mother’s monthly benefits from two pensions and Social Security deposited directly with the nursing home to cover her care, room, and board.
DeFriece told the newly impaneled U.S. District Court jury of 10 women and two men that she called, faxed, and wrote to Williams and sent him monthly statements showing the burgeoning balance in his mother’s account, until she worried she might be charged with harassment: “He was not cooperating. Basically, he looked down on me more like I was chasing for money.”
DeFriece testified that Williams had said “he was too busy running the city” and on another occasion had told her to come to his office to get the papers.
“We have 260 residents,” DeFriece said in response to questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer. “I didn’t have to go, nor did I [go]. Why should I have to? Everybody gets treated the same in our nursing homes.”
DeFriece said she was especially concerned when she obtained one of Imelda Williams’ bank statements that showed debits to Old Navy and Lord & Taylor as well as to the lender Fannie Mae. She said she warned Seth Williams that the money by law had to be turned over to St. Francis for his mother’s care and that he could face penalties. She said Williams laughed and blamed his mother for the charges, saying she liked to buy presents for his daughters.
DeFriece said that before St. Francis obtained the records it needed, it lost more than $13,000 caring for Imelda Williams. She said the facility decided not to pursue Seth Williams and wrote it off as a bad debt.
DeFriece is to return to the witness stand Wednesday to be questioned by defense attorney Thomas F. Burke, who has blamed the nursing home for failing to explain completely all the steps Williams needed to take involving his mother’s finances and misplaced some of her paperwork for months.
DeFriece, the prosecution’s first witness, followed a morning of opening statements from prosecution and defense lawyers giving the jury starkly different interpretations of the projected next four weeks of evidence against the city’s top law enforcement official.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vineet Gauri portrayed Williams, 50, almost as an addict – a man so driven by a lifestyle exceeding his paycheck that he willingly solicited and accepted bribes and defrauded his election committee, the federal and city governments, and his mother to maintain it.
In his 60-minute opening statement before a packed courtroom, Gauri accused the two-term district attorney of “using public office for private gain.”
“Whenever Seth Williams had the chance to put his hand in someone else’s pocket and take money, he took it,” Gauri told the jury.
Burke conceded the factual underpinnings of the government’s case – the gifts and trips, use of political action committee money, the use of his mother’s nursing-home payments, and private use of government vehicles – but maintained that none of it was illegal.
The gifts worth thousands of dollars from two wealthy businessmen were just that, Burke said, because no official action took place in exchange.
“There was no quid pro quo, no this for that,” Burke said, pointing to the three federal prosecutors. “They found the ‘this’ but not the ‘that.’ ”
The alleged theft of his mother’s nursing-home funds was because of a “screwup” by nursing-home administrators in filling out the necessary contracts and paperwork, Burke said.
As for Williams’ personal use of vehicles funded by the city or through a federal drug-fighting program, Burke said the city policies were written to cover employees, not elected officials.
As district attorney, Burke added, Williams was entitled to round-the-clock protection and a government vehicle and driver.
Each of the criminal acts alleged by federal prosecutors was so weak, Burke told the jury, that the government combined them in one indictment to get it past the federal grand jury.
“The district attorney of Philadelphia made bad mistakes, he exercised poor judgment, and he made bad decisions,” Burke said. “He can’t keep his finances straight and he has a messy personal life. … But they will not be able to prove he committed any crimes.”
Williams sat listening to his lawyer’s opening, chin cradled in one hand, and nodding frequently in apparent agreement with Burke’s arguments. When Burke returned to the defense table, Williams shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder.