Seth Williams' dumb move via smart phone

Philadelphia Prosecutor Gifts
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams arrives for a preliminary hearing in his bribery and extortion case at the federal courthouse, in Philadelphia, on March 28.

In a previous geological era, I was a special attorney with the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. In that capacity, I had the thoroughly enjoyable task of investigating and prosecuting members of La Cosa Nostra. Among the more entertaining parts of the job, my colleagues and I wiretapped mobsters' telephones.

Approximately half of every intercepted communication began with the Mafia's version of the Miranda warning: "Don't talk on this line. It's tapped." But, with that formality out of the way, they always talked.

Sometimes our wire intercepts hit pay dirt. But more often we recorded conversations that pretty much tracked the following script:

Made Guy 1: "You do that thing?"

Made Guy 2: "The thing with the guy?"

Made Guy 1: "No, the other thing."

Made Guy 2: "You mean the other guy?"

Made Guy 1: "No, the first guy."

Made Guy 2: "Yeah."

Made Guy 1: "OK. Bye."

Now compare and contrast that well-done and completely opaque verbal exchange with the woefully unambiguous text messages attributed in the government's recent indictment to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

The government alleges that Williams traded favorable official actions in return for money and other things of value. Whether Williams is guilty as charged is, of course, a matter to be determined in court. But, guilty or not, if the indictment is factually correct, Williams' alleged foray into the world of public corruption was hopelessly amateurish and clumsy.

Take, for example, his means of communication. Did he conduct his affairs through cryptic telephone calls or furtive face-to-face conversations? Far from it.

The indictment is replete with appallingly detailed text messages by which Williams executed his allegedly corrupt scheme. The problem here is that, once launched into cyberspace, text messages invariably land in any number of electronic repositories over which the sender has no custody or control and from which they can be readily retrieved. To put it mildly, this is very poor criminal technique. It would be like Lee Harvey Oswald planning the Kennedy assassination over the public address system at an Eagles' game.

And the text messages recited in the indictment leave little to the imagination: When the man wanted a freebie, he specified exactly what he wanted. And when he took official action at the request of his benefactors, he spelled it out. Even worse, just in case someone might think he had no criminal intent, at least in one instance, he cleared up that potentially helpful misconception by texting that he had temporarily refrained from granting a benefactor's wish because to do so would have looked "suspicious." Ouch!

Let's drop back for a second. I once had an informant call a corrupt public official to discuss a pay-off. For my troubles, I got a recorded Fourth of July speech in which the target proclaimed the importance of honesty, ethics in government, and metaphorical personal hygiene as in "I'm so clean, when I shower I don't even need soap." Later, when they met in person, he told the informant that, if she ever again tried to talk business over the phone, he would arrange for her to have an "accident."

I offer this vignette as guidance to Williams and to politicos everywhere who may aspire to a life of off-the-books emoluments. Beware your means of communication and think before you communicate. If you want to successfully practice corruption, you must put some serious thought and effort into it.

In Williams' case, I recognize that this useful advice may be wasted. For, judging by his comically explicit text messages, Williams may simply lack the mental firepower necessary for white-collar criminal success. That's the bad news.

The good news is that his easily demonstrable limited intelligence may prove to be Williams' best defense at trial.

George Parry is a former state and federal prosecutor practicing law in Philadelphia. lgparry@dpt-law.com