Feds probe rent for Philly DA Seth Williams' ex-wife

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (left) is accused by a campaign contributor of asking "as a favor" to rent a house at a below-market rate to his ex-wife, Sonita Williams (seen here in 2010).

A real estate investor and campaign contributor to District Attorney Seth Williams' past political campaigns says Williams asked him, "as a favor," to rent his ex-wife a house at a below-market rate three year ago.

Robert Herdelin, who owns property in the city, in the suburbs, and at the Jersey Shore, said in an interview that he agreed to rent a 3,056-square-foot, four-bedroom house in Drexel Hill to Sonita Williams for $1,000 per month. Herdelin said he believed the house could have brought in $2,500 a month.

"She didn't have much money, and Seth asked me as a favor to try to give her a break for $1,000 per month," Herdelin said.

The rental arrangement has drawn the attention of the FBI, Herdelin said, with agents visiting him in October and again this year.

Two FBI agents wanted to know if Sonita Williams was paying rent. Herdelin said he told them she dropped off a check on the first day of each month.

"All I know is the check was coming from Sonita Williams," he said. "For all I know, she got it from the lottery."

Williams, a Democrat expected to seek a third term in 2017, did not respond to an email request for comment. Spokesmen for the District Attorney's Office and his political action committee declined to comment.

Sonita Williams, reached by telephone, said, "I don't have anything to say to you" and then hung up on a reporter.

Herdelin, a basketball star for La Salle College from 1958 through 1960, said the discounted rent was a favor with no expectation of anything in return.

"I was taking a loss on that, absolutely," he said. "I got nothing in return. What can [Seth Williams] do for me? I don't want anything from him."

Herdelin said annual real estate taxes on the Drexel Hill house are about $13,000, $1,000 more than Sonita Williams was paying each year.

After the FBI visited him, Herdelin increased the rent to $2,500. Sonita Williams packed up and moved out, he said.

Public records in Delaware County show that she took out a mortgage in January to buy a 1,751-square-foot twin-style house with three bedrooms and one bathroom about two miles away in Lansdowne.

She and Williams announced in December 2011 they were divorcing. It is unclear if the couple have a continuing financial relationship.

'See supplement'

Under the Philadelphia Code, city officials are required to report gifts, which are defined as "a payment, subscription, advance, forbearance, rending or deposit of money, services or anything of value, given to or for the benefit of, an officer or employee, unless consideration of equal or greater value is received."

The code also says, "A gift to another person is a gift to an officer or employee if the officer or employee solicits the gift and receives a financial benefit from it."

Williams, in statements of financial interests filed with the city and state in 2012, 2013, and 2014, checked a box indicating he had received no gifts.

The 2015 statements of financial interests Williams filed with the Philadelphia Department of Records on May 2 say "see supplement" in the areas where creditors, income, and gifts should be listed.

Department staffers said Williams submitted no supplement with the two forms.

The civil penalty for not reporting is $1,000 in the Philadelphia Code.

Drawing headlines

Herdelin said he started supporting Seth Williams during his first campaign in 2005, because he didn't like the incumbent, then-District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham.

Herdelin gave $13,093 to Williams' PAC from 2009 to 2012, including the costs to host a 2010 summer fund-raiser in Loveladies at the Jersey Shore.

Herdelin has drawn headlines in the past for clashing with Delaware County officials about a controversial bar called Cheers that he owned in Upper Darby. Herdelin said he no longer owns the bar.

The Inquirer in August first reported the FBI and IRS, working with a grand jury, had subpoenaed Williams' PAC records to determine if he misspent funds on personal expenses, according to sources familiar with the probe.

Patty Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, last week said her agency "could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation."

Williams has declined to comment on or even acknowledge the federal investigation. But he has taken steps to remedy his messy campaign finances, closing down on the last day of 2015 the "Friends of Seth Williams" PAC he used for 10 years.

In its place, he created the "Seth Williams Victory Committee," putting in charge a group of Harrisburg Republicans with experience operating PACs.