U.S. probing Local 98 payment for Seth Williams' daughters to attend summer camps abroad

FBI agents investigating Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams sought information earlier this year on connections between the city's embattled top prosecutor and Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, including thousands of dollars spent by the union to send Williams’ daughters to summer camps abroad.

A $6,400 donation from the politically powerful labor organization covered the full costs of separate trips the girls took to Spain and Japan in 2015, according to public records and sources familiar with the probe.

The payment came five months before Williams’ office was called upon to investigate a work-site brawl involving the union’s longtime leader, John J. Dougherty, the target of a separate and long-running federal grand jury investigation.

Williams later would recuse his office from the assault investigation. Federal prosecutors have not alleged any wrongdoing tied to Local 98’s funding of his daughters’ travels.

But the FBI’s interest in how the district attorney covered the costs of the trips suggests a potential point of convergence between two high-profile public corruption probes – the federal bribery case against the district attorney and an ongoing investigation into Local 98’s prolific political clout.

It also could provide fodder for potential additional charges against Williams. In a court filing Friday, prosecutors noted that their investigation of the district attorney continues, and sources familiar with the matter said that a superseding indictment is likely before his May 31 trial date.

Williams’ lawyer, Thomas Burke, declined to discuss the summer camp trips this week. He previously criticized prosecutors’ allegations that his client had solicited gifts worth thousands of dollars – including trips for himself to California and the Dominican Republic – from wealthy benefactors seeking help with legal woes.

Local 98 spokesman Frank Keel described the union’s decision to cover the costs of enrollment for the sisters – Hope, then 11, and Taylor, then 15 – as a scholarship, similar to dozens of others the union distributes to worthy students each year.

“IBEW Local 98 is arguably the most philanthropic union in the city,” he said in a statement. “When the requests for contributions [for Williams’ daughters] were received by the union, the submissions went through several levels of internal scrutiny, which is the case with every charitable contribution request.”

Ann Press, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Children’s International Summer Villages, the group that organized the trips, said the circumstances surrounding the payment struck her as unusual at the time.

Parents often seek outside help paying for their children’s travel, she said, but her nonprofit rarely receives checks directly from those organizations. Local 98’s $6,400 payment to Children’s International in 2015 is the only contribution the union made to the group in the last decade, according to the union’s annual reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Usually parents pay by check well in advance, because we have to buy plane tickets and pay for other program fees,” Press said. “Seth Williams did not write a check for his daughters’ participation. His daughters’ fees were covered by an organization we were not accustomed to.” 

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The FBI’s interest in the summer camps and their connection to Local 98 surfaced Friday in a search warrant attached to a government court filing in Williams’ federal case.

The warrant, dated Jan. 5, sought access to three of the district attorney’s email accounts and messages referring to nearly 40 individuals and entities whose connections with him were under review at the time.

Most of those names later would be in the 32-count indictment filed against Williams in March. But the appearance of Dougherty and Local 98 on the list, along with a handful of political operatives tied to both Williams and the union, stood out.

Until now, federal authorities have not disclosed a link between their investigations of the district attorney and Local 98. Unlike a subpoena, investigators would have had to demonstrate probable cause of a likely crime to have obtained a search warrant for information connecting the two.

The warrant also sought any messages in Williams’ accounts referencing Children’s International Summer Villages, which has sent Philadelphia preteens and teenagers to camps across the globe for more than 50 years.

Press said Williams told her he was eager to have his daughters participate in the program because he had attended the group’s camps as a teen growing up in West Philadelphia.

“It is really a great opportunity for students to learn leadership skills and meet people from around the globe,” she said. “It changes people’s lives and leaves lasting impressions.”

Photos on the Facebook page of the nonprofit’s Philadelphia chapter show a smiling 11-year-old Hope Williams, dressed in a long green T-shirt, on the day she set out in August 2015 for her monthlong excursion to Kanto, Japan.

The same day, a separate post featured photos of sister Taylor bound for Galicia, on Spain’s north Atlantic coast.

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Within four months of the sisters’ return, the union again would enter Williams’ orbit.

In January 2016, tensions between Dougherty’s Local 98 and nonunion workers erupted at a South Philadelphia job site near Third and Reed Streets. Joshua Keesee, a nonunion electrician, accused Dougherty of pummeling him with his fists during the heated confrontation.

Dougherty vigorously disputed that account, saying that he was not the aggressor and that Keesee had threatened his family and rushed him first.

Keese’s lawyer, Robert Mozenter, said detectives told him they had urged the District Attorney’s Office to arrest Dougherty and the Local 98 members with him at the time on aggravated-assault charges.

Instead, Williams referred the case to the state Attorney General’s Office, citing his own “long-standing professional relationship with Mr. Dougherty.” Law enforcement sources say that before doing so he demoted Laurie Malone, a former top deputy in his office, after she also recommended charging the union chief.

Both Malone and Mozenter appeared on the list of names in the January search warrant the FBI served on Williams’ email accounts.

Williams has declined to discuss Malone’s job status, but maintained that there was never any disagreement within the District Attorney’s Office about how to handle the case and denied ever doing anything to compromise the outcome of any investigation.

But by the time of his decision to recuse his office, Williams would have been well aware of the FBI’s interest in his finances. The Inquirer first reported on the investigation in August 2015 when FBI agents subpoenaed records from his political action committee.

The brawls now have attracted attention from the federal authorities probing Dougherty and his union.

Sources familiar with that investigation have described an expansive inquiry into the levers by which Local 98 exerts its power – from its prolific giving to political candidates and  the network of allies it has built across all levels of government to allegations of work-site intimidation and misspending of funds meant to foster union jobs.

Regardless of whether the summer sojourns of Williams’ daughters two years ago factor into the cases against their father or the union that paid for them to go, Press, the organizer, remains dismayed that the girls and her nonprofit have been dragged into the middle of two criminal investigations.

Asked this week whether she was aware of the FBI’s interest in the travel, she responded: “It’s just a shame.”

Staff writers Chris Palmer, Mark Fazlollah, and Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

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