Judge prepares to challenge DA Seth Williams in primary

Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni said "it's time for a change" in the District Attorney's Office.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams will face yet another Democratic primary challenger Monday, when Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni declares her candidacy.

Deni, 69, who resigned Friday after 21 years on the bench, said "it's time for a change" in the District Attorney's Office. She cited a "disconnect" between Williams and people he serves, driven in part by his prosecution of local legislators for taking illegal gifts while he was also accepting expensive gifts but not reporting them.

Williams in August amended his statements of financial interests for 2010 to 2015, listing $160,050 in previously unreported gifts, including home repairs, airfare and lodgings for vacations, cash and gift cards, and Eagles sideline passes.

"I think that really broke faith with a lot of people in the community," said Deni, a graduate of Temple Law School.

Williams declined to be interviewed Friday.

Dan Fee, a spokesman for Williams' campaign, replied in an email: "I am surprised that the judge doesn't seem to understand that the district attorney prosecuted legislators who traded their votes for cash payments, which presumably she understands is a serious crime, while the district attorney has never taken any official action as a reward to any of his friends who sought to help him while he was going through a painful and public divorce."

Williams has also faced scrutiny since the Inquirer first reported in August 2015 that the FBI and IRS, working with a federal grand jury, had subpoenaed documents from his political action committee.

A spokesman for the District Attorney's Office confirmed in August that federal agents had interviewed members of Williams' staff.

"Seth's got a lot of problems," Deni said when asked about the federal investigation. "And I'm not here to try to persuade anybody that he's done anything that would get him arrested. That's not in my hands."

Deni credited Williams for working with the First Judicial District on jail diversion programs that had "a positive impact." But she also complained the District Attorney's Office routinely negotiates pleas requiring 12 months of reporting to probation, which she said overburdened that system and was ineffective.

"Frankly, Seth seems distracted," Deni said. "It's like he has lost focus."

Deni considered a run for district attorney in 2009, as Lynne M. Abraham retired from that post. Williams won a competitive Democratic primary that year and then coasted to a general election victory.

"I could see there was great enthusiasm for the first African American district attorney," said Deni, who is white. "So I stayed put. But now I think there could be a different attitude toward his candidacy. And, frankly, a positive attitude toward mine."

Deni sparked controversy of her own in 2007 when she reduced a rape charge to a theft of service charge in a case involving a woman who agreed to have sex for money with two men but then reported to police she had been forced at gunpoint to have sex with four men.

The controversy grew after Deni told the Daily News that the victim's complaint "minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped."

The Philadelphia Bar Association called Deni's handling of the case an "unforgivable miscarriage of justice." The District Attorney's Office refiled the rape charges in Common Pleas Court, where the defendant pleaded guilty.

Deni calls that guilty plea proof "the system worked."

She calls that case an unfair measure of her 21-year judicial career, handling more than 100,000 cases.

"I stand on my true reputation," Deni said. "People know I bend over backward to be fair."

Deni spent 10 years in private practice before her election as judge.

Deni, who lives in the Crestmont Farms section of Northeast Philadelphia with her two sons, is betting her experience stands out against Williams and the other contenders.

Former federal prosecutor Joe Khan entered the Democratic primary in September. Richard Negrin, Philadelphia's managing director from 2010 to 2015, last month said he is exploring a run for the office.

Michael Untermeyer, who was the Republican nominee who lost to Williams in 2008, said in October he is considering a run as a Democrat.

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, in October said Williams would have a difficult time winning his party's endorsement for the May 16 primary election. Brady predicted an "open primary" with no endorsement.

Deni is counting on it.

"Otherwise, I probably wouldn't be in it," she said. "It's an open shot."

brennac@phillynews.com

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@ByChrisBrennan