As the D.A. is learning: Sometimes, you have to punt the football

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District Attorney Seth Williams.

On a South Philly corner, harsh words prompted some punching, a few minor injuries, and conflicting accounts of who started the donnybrook.

Some of this was caught on security camera video. Witnesses came forward. The cops investigated and recommended charges.

And then District Attorney Seth Williams, who not so long ago spoke derisively about punting politically sensitive cases, kicked the ball to the state Attorney General's Office.

I just knew former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who knows a thing or two about a tussle, would have something to say.

After all, it was Williams, the Abraham protege-turned-political opponent, who didn't think much of her practice of referring to state or federal authorities cases in which she thought she could be seen to have a political conflict of interest.

Two years ago, Williams declared that his office "will no longer abdicate our responsibility" while talking about prosecuting then-State Rep. J.P. Miranda, a fellow Democrat.

Last year, Williams took the same stance when his office took up a case dropped by the Attorney General's Office against then-State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, whom he had known and admired for many years.

"I will not and cannot look the other way just because you are my friend or a member of my political party or my race," Williams said of Bishop, a Democrat who eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and resigned from office.

Which brings us to the news that broke last week about the Jan. 21 fight between John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, leader of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and a nonunion contractor.

The contractor claims Dougherty threw the first punch. Dougherty, through a spokesman, said he only defended himself after the contractor turned violent.

Williams stood behind the offensive line, took the snap and booted the ball as far down the field as he could.

The Attorney General's Office is investigating. The FBI is poking around, too.

And, despite their bad blood, Abraham can see why Williams punted.

"Let's face it: John Dougherty is a very hot product," she said. "I wouldn't have referred it [to the Attorney General]. But others might have."

Abraham said a grand jury could have reviewed the video, heard from the witnesses, and decided if charges were warranted.

"Throw it in front of a grand jury and see what happens," Abraham said. "No biggie."

Williams doesn't agree.

Dougherty's union, the largest source of campaign contributions in Pennsylvania, supported another candidate in the 2009 Democratic primary election that Williams won on his way to becoming district attorney.

Local 98 then gave Williams $11,500 in 2013 when he was seeking a second term, and $6,000 in 2014.

Williams is up for reelection next year, if he decides to seek a third term.

He casts his decision to punt as necessary.

"I have a long-standing professional relationship with Mr. Dougherty that required me to refer the matter to another agency," he said in an email sent via an office spokesman.

Williams, in the email, also said "the Dougherty investigation and [Bishop's] case cannot be fairly compared because they are different in their inception, investigation, and stage of prosecution."

The Bishop case was part of an undercover sting operation started by the Attorney General's Office but dropped by Kathleen G. Kane after she took over there in 2013.

There were audio and video in the sting cases. Witnesses, too. A grand jury sorted it out after Williams restarted the prosecution.

That could have happened in the Dougherty investigation. But for Williams, a punt is a problem only when someone else is dropping the ball.

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973 @ByChrisBrennan

[UPDATED: An earlier version of this column inaccurately reported the plea in the criminal case against state Rep. Louise Williams.]