From an early, unexpected prison stay, Seth Williams awaits his fate

Seth Williams awoke alone in an isolated prison cell Friday, facing a future far grimmer than any he had imagined just 24 hours earlier.

Having traded one title – district attorney – for one less desirable – Inmate No. 75926-066 – he ate his breakfast in his new 8-by-10 quarters at the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center, and steeled himself for the prospect of months all but cut off from the outside world.

But what comes next for the city’s former top prosecutor, after his surprise guilty plea last week in a federal bribery trial that could keep him in prison for up to five years, depends largely on the inclinations of the man who ordered his immediate incarceration.

The decision Thursday by U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond to revoke Williams’ bail and imprison him while he awaits formal sentencing in October surprised both the former district attorney and many in Philadelphia’s larger legal community.

Some saw the judge’s move – a rare one in white-collar criminal cases – as excessively severe, but not unexpected from a judge who even close friends describe as one of the toughest on the region’s federal bench. Others said Williams had no one to blame but himself after failing again and again to uphold the oaths he had sworn.

But veteran defense lawyer Jack McMahon, who worked with Diamond in the 1970s and ’80s in the District Attorney’s Office, cited a long list of other fallen politicians – including former State Sen. Vincent Fumo and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah – who had been granted time to arrange their affairs before returning to court for punishment.

“He didn’t kill anyone, for Christ’s sake,” McMahon said of Williams. “I don’t think it was necessary to jail him now, and to be honest, I thought it was harsh.”

No one appeared more surprised by the judge’s sudden action than Williams, who was escorted away in handcuffs and booked into a cell in the detention center’s Special Housing Unit with conditions akin to solitary confinement.

Area defense lawyers said it is routine for incarcerated former law enforcement officers to be housed in the SHU, given the threat to their safety that other inmates might pose, but they likened the isolating conditions to being housed in a dog kennel.

There, Williams will be confined for 23 hours a day, will eat his meals in his cell, and be allowed out for an hour of exercise each day. He can have one visitor a week and only one 15-minute phone call a month.

“No one wants to be in a federal detention center, but if you land there, the last place you want to be is the SHU,” said Philadelphia defense attorney William J. Brennan. “It’s like the Seventh Circle of Hell.”

Williams’ own lawyer Thomas F. Burke said Friday he had hoped to spare his client that fate. Had he been allowed to remain free and report to prison after his sentencing, it is likely Williams would have gone straight to a minimum-security prison camp with dormitory-like conditions to serve out his sentence.

“But Judge Diamond is who he is,” Burke said. “It makes you wonder, though: Was [this decision] really about the nature of the defendant, or more about the nature of the judge?”

Diamond,  64, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2004 by former President George W. Bush, is known at the federal courthouse for his brusque humor, blunt honesty, and impatience with unnecessary delay.

It was Diamond who ordered Williams’ case to proceed to trial within months of his March indictment, saying that the district attorney’s decision to remain in office while fighting the case made a quick resolution necessary for the public good.

In past cases, Diamond has shown little tolerance for convicted wrongdoers seeking to delay incarceration and has denied everyone from crooked cops to white-collar offenders lengthy delays to get their affairs in order.

Faced in 2012 with a 60-year-old, wheelchair-reliant Philadelphia grandmother who told him she had continued to deposit her dead mother’s Social Security checks so she could financially support her grandchildren — including one who was disabled — Diamond cited the woman’s lengthy rap sheet of prior crimes and ordered her immediate incarceration.

“Did it ever occur to you to go out and get a job?” the judge asked. “Did it ever occur to you that the way to help your grandchildren is not to commit a series of endless federal frauds?”

In Williams’ case, the former district attorney teared up Thursday as he cited his daughters in his bid to remain free until his sentencing date. His lawyer argued that the former district attorney’s dismal finances meant he couldn’t flee even if he wanted to. And federal probation officers recommended that Williams be allowed to stay out on bail.

Diamond dismissed those arguments, citing evidence presented just a day earlier that Williams had lied on sworn statements detailing his financial interests less than six months before his trial.

“I simply do not credit this defendant’s testimony,” Diamond said. “I do not believe him.”

Those statements from the bench are key to understanding Diamond’s decision, said L. George Parry, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense lawyer in Philadelphia.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Parry said. After a conviction in the federal system, the defendant must prove that he is unlikely to flee and poses no danger to the community.

No matter what evidence Williams or his lawyers put forward, Parry said, “he had basically proved he had no credibility at that point.”

Williams’ plea deal with prosecutors required him to admit to every crime with which he had been charged, but to plead guilty only to one violation of the Travel Act.

The former district attorney’s other misdeeds included accepting bribes from two wealthy businessmen, draining his campaign coffers to pay for memberships at exclusive Center City clubs, and misspending money that had been set aside for his aging mother’s nursing home care.

And that lengthy list of transgressions all but ensures that the final sentence Diamond imposes will be near the high end of Williams’ sentencing range of up to five years.

But even after he is released, Williams’ prospects likely will remain dire. He told the court Thursday that he was drowning in debt. His pension is now threatened, he has no significant savings to speak of, and he faces the possible imposition of hundreds of thousands of dollars in forfeiture obligations and fines.

Samuel Stretton, a lawyer who represented Williams in his dealings with the city’s Board of Ethics, said last week that he now worries what the former district attorney will do to earn a living. Because Williams admitted to bribery, Stretton said, he likely will be permanently disbarred.

But at least one man who fell from similar heights held out hope that Williams could bounce back.

Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate served a 14-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to federal mail fraud charges in 1995. Since his release, Preate has regained his law license and has remade himself as an in-demand Scranton attorney, focused on prison reform issues.

“Being high-profile, I understood I had to pay a higher price. So does Seth,” Preate said. “But I wish him well. I hope he thinks long and hard about what happened and how he can resurrect himself.”

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.

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