Updated: 5:15 p.m.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams clearly loves the Eagles.
During past football seasons, he has regularly tweeted support for the team during games and has met with players and former coach Chip Kelly on numerous occasions, sometimes inside team facilities.
This week, through disclosures of gifts Williams turned in late, we learned his connection to the team goes deeper: Williams was given free sidelines passes by the Eagles from 2011 to 2015. Those passes are not available for sale to the general public, and Williams spokesperson Mustafa Rashed said Williams and other employees of the district attorney’s office have used them.
It’s a common sight at NFL games to see guests on the sidelines, from celebrities to former athletes. But Williams is not a former athlete, a celebrity or even the same type of public official as the mayor or a city councilperson. He runs an office tasked with investigating, charging and trying alleged criminals on behalf of the city, and sometimes those investigations involve Eagles players. Is there a potential conflict of interest with Williams receiving and using those sideline passes?
“That certainly is something one could look into and should,” said W. Borne Ruthrauff, an attorney with Bennett Bricklin & Saltzburg and co chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Professional Responsibility Committee. “It would depend on a lot of different circumstances.”
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Williams has been district attorney since 2010. In his six-plus years leading the office, only two reported incidents involving Eagles have been investigated. Both happened earlier this year.
In February, former Eagle LeSean “Shady” McCoy and his friends were involved in an altercation with off-duty police officers at the nightclub Recess Lounge. In June, wide receiver Nelson Agholor was accused of sexually assaulting an exotic dancer. Williams’ office declined to press charges in both cases.
“They try 50,000 cases a year, so at some point the D.A. himself is not responsible decisions on day-to-day prosecutions,” said Rashed, president and CEO of Bellevue Strategies. “To look at all of them and say there’s a conflict here or conflict there that’s not how an operation would run smoothly.
“They try every case on merits, not for political consideration.”
In instances where Williams has close relationships with individuals, his office has passed investigations elsewhere. For example, the District Attorney’s Office referred the investigation of a fight between John Dougherty and a non-union contractor to state and federal officials, with Williams saying he had a “long-standing professional relationship” with Dougherty.
Dougherty’s union, IBEW Local 98, has contributed thousands of dollars to Williams’ campaign. No value was assigned to the Eagles’ sideline passes in Williams’ financial disclosure. As of 2014, the lowest Eagles ticket price was $75. The cost for eight home games for five years would be $3,000, and sideline passes, if publicly available, would cost far more than $75.
Rashed said the Eagles also offer sideline passes to the Mayor, fire commissioner and police commissioner. The Eagles confirmed those public officials receive passes, as well as one security personnel for each.
As district attorney, Williams is bound to ethical guidelines set forth by the city and state for all public officials, as well as the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, which must be followed by all attorneys. Gifts are not against Pennsylvania’s codes when they’re properly reported. And gifts from family and “friends,” a term the Philadelphia Bar Association points out is undefined, don’t even have to be reported. For conduct to be considered unethical, it would have to be proven a public official solicited or accepted the gift in return for a type of favor. Philadelphia codes for gifts are slightly different, with gift limits of $99 in value from any person seeking action from a particular public official.
A section of the Rules of Professional Conduct states that a conflict of interest exists if “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited…by a personal interest of the lawyer.”
In the case of Williams, the city of Philadelphia is his client. It is his duty to serve its residents. If an outside interest such as the Eagles interferes with his ability to prosecute individuals for the good of Philadelphia, it would be considered a conflict of interest.
But Ruthrauff points out there’s no evidence Williams’ relationship with the Eagles influences his decisions, and there are many ways Williams could sidestep potential conflict of interest issues, such as by asking others in his office to complete the investigation of Eagles players. He said it might be the Eagles have made it clear they don’t expect anything in return for the sideline passes.
“Yes, there’s a potential (conflict of interest),” Ruthrauff said, “but we have to be very careful before we draw any conclusions.”