Jury selected, Philly DA Seth Williams' federal corruption trial opens Tuesday

District Attorney Seth Williams arrives for a pretrial hearing at the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 14, 2017.

Testimony begins Tuesday in the federal corruption trial of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, elected as a reformer, and now charged with accepting bribes and gifts and defrauding the government and his mother’s nursing home in what prosecutors say was his way of maintaining a lifestyle that exceeded his paycheck.

U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond spent all day Monday with prosecution and defense lawyers culling a panel of 137 prospects from nine Southeastern Pennsylvania counties to create a main jury panel of 10 women and two men, and four alternates, all women, for a trial predicted to last from three to four weeks at the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets.

Diamond had told the lawyers he thought they could select the jury in one day for the trial of Williams. By midday, he was having his doubts, as 104 members of the panel said being selected would pose a severe personal burden. Ninety-nine said they had heard about or read news accounts of the case.

Yet by 4:45 p.m., the judge had a panel in front of him. Just two of the main jurors are African American — Williams has proudly described himself on his office’s website as the city’s first African American district attorney. But the panel — with jurors from as far away as Lancaster, Lehigh, and Northampton Counties — brings diverse life experiences to the mix.

One woman said she worked as a chocolate taster at the Hershey plant. Another woman, a former retail jeweler, told how she once chased down and beat a robber before setting him free. The panel includes a juvenile probation officer, a businessman from Chester County, and a Philadelphia cardiac nurse.

Diamond gave the 16 jurors instructions about avoiding any news or social media coverage of the case, and told them to report to court at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday for the start of the trial.

After some initial legal instructions from the judge, the jury will hear opening arguments from the prosecution and defense lawyers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Vineet Gauri, part of a team that includes federal prosecutors Robert A. Zauzmer and Eric Moran, will make the government’s opening statement. Defense attorney Thomas F. Burke, supported Monday by law partner Trevan Borum, will make the defense opening to the jury.

Then the first prosecution witness will take the stand.

Prosecutors allege that Williams, 50, nearing the end of his second four-year term, was so indebted that he ignored his oath of office and professional ethics and accepted bribes and gifts, and defrauded the government and his own mother to maintain his lifestyle.

The defense maintains that Williams’ wide circle of friends willingly lent him money and paid for vacations and other personal expenses. Williams’ use of government vehicles and money earmarked for his mother’s nursing home bills were well within the law, the defense says.

In their trial memorandum, prosecutors broke down Williams’ alleged crimes into five schemes:

  • Accepting bribes from Feasterville businessman Mohammad Ali, 40, who prosecutors say gave thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts to Williams between 2010 and 2015. Although Ali had said he had a “personal relationship” with the prosecutor, he also has admitted asking Williams to help him bypass secondary security screening at Philadelphia International Airport. He also asked Williams to intervene in a drug case against a disc jockey at a Center City nightclub Ali patronized.
  • Accepting vacations and a 1997 Jaguar XK-8 convertible from Michael Weiss, owner of the Center City gay bar Woody’s, for his help in resolving regulatory problems involving the liquor license for Weiss’ bar in California.
  • Fraud involving $20,000 designated for his mother’s care in a nursing home being taken for personal use.
  • Defrauding his political action committee, Friends of Seth Williams, by using more than $10,000 in contributions for personal expenses including meals, massages, and facials at the Union League and the Sporting Club at the Bellevue.
  • Defrauding a federal anticrime program and the City of Philadelphia by using vehicles designated for law enforcement for his personal use.

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