Philly prosecutors sick of Williams, worry about backlash

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams departs after making an announcement at a news conference in Philadelphia, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. Williams said he won't run for a third term amid an FBI probe into gifts he initially failed to report. Last week he was indicted on corruption, bribery-related charges. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The job of a city prosecutor is filled with mostly thankless tasks, a never-ending carousel of heavy caseloads, grieving families, skittish witnesses, and skeptical juries.

That's in the best of circumstances. But the last few months have been positively nightmarish for the 600 or so employees who toil in Philadelphia's District Attorney's Office.

Long-simmering rumors about the political demise of their boss, District Attorney Seth Williams, finally came to fruition on March 21, when federal authorities indicted him on corruption and bribery-related charges. The situation grew even more bizarre Tuesday, when Williams was charged in a superseding indictment with wire fraud, mail fraud, and extortion.

Williams decided early on that he would not go gently into that good night; instead, he pulled a Kathleen Kane, opting to stay in office and continue collecting a paycheck with a suspended law license.

The effect of Williams' multiple indictments has left the office demoralized, according to multiple prosecutors who agreed to talk to the Inquirer and Daily News anonymously because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the office's inner workings. 

They say they are tired of being chided inside the Criminal Justice Center over every new headline about Williams' alleged misdeeds, tired of operating under the shadow of his personal and professional screw-ups.

There may be some light at the end of that tunnel. Williams' trial is scheduled to begin May 31, which means this latest entry in the long, maddening book of Philadelphia political scandals could soon reach a welcome conclusion.  

Williams swept into the District Attorney's Office in 2010 on a tide of goodwill, promising to usher in a "new day" after the 19-year reign of his predecessor and mentor-turned-frenemy,  Lynne M. Abraham. 

He earned mostly high marks from his underlings at first. 

"He made incredible changes to the way the place is structured. That's almost forgotten now, which is a tragedy," said one assistant district attorney, referring to Williams' successful push to implement a zoned system that saw prosecutors assigned to specific geographic areas. 

But the office soon swirled with rumors about Williams' personal relationships and questionable judgment, like his decision to hire three former state prosecutors linked to the Porngate email scandal. 

Unlike Abraham, he churned through an assortment of first assistants -- Joe McGettigan, Ed McCann, George Mosee Jr., Tariq El-Shabazz, Kathleen Martin -- which created an air of instability. 

"Everybody has that member of the family who constantly gets into trouble," said a veteran prosecutor. "At first, everyone's really concerned. But as more and more things happen, you become numb to it. You still have a job to do." 

The indictment, though, proved to be a shock to the system. Williams was accused of misspending $20,000 meant for his mother's nursing home care, and blatantly requesting trips and gifts from an assortment of so-called friends who in turn asked for official favors. 

"I sat at lunch and read the indictment. And for the first time, I had a very hard time walking back into my office," the veteran prosecutor said. "We'd all been expecting him to get indicted for years. But everybody was surprised at the extent of what was going on."

Some worried the allegations against Williams would hamper them in courtrooms. "Do I think there's some backlash in a trial situation, where jurors aren't as tied into the system and they only see the headlines? Absolutely," said an assistant district attorney who is higher up the chain of command. "That's a concern we all have, that jurors might have a perception that [a defendant] got a benefit that somebody else didn't get." 

Others are weary from the ever-growing developments, like a story last week that Electricians  Local 98 had spent $6,400 in 2015 to send Williams' two daughters to summer camps abroad. 

"We don't see him around the office, which is good," said the veteran prosecutor. "But this [expletive] is still collecting a paycheck." 

If Williams is convicted, he could finally resign -- following, again, in the footsteps of  ex-Attorney General Kane. 

"There's just no predictability or stability," said another prosecutor, who worked under Abraham. "We've all accepted that he managed to do this to himself, but the rest of us have to keep working. The ship moves forward, even without a captain." 

How the crowded race for Williams' replacement will shake out is still anyone's guess; no polls have been publicly released to gauge how any of the candidates are faring.  

"We used to have a prestigious reputation," said another prosecutor. "Whoever comes next is going to have to work hard to take ... off that tarnish."  

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