Federal officials have charged Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams with 23 counts of bribery, extortion and wire fraud, and prosecutors say the city’s top lawyer not only sought out and accepted bribes, but defrauded a nursing home to benefit his own financial interests.
Prosecutors Tuesday alleged at least three separate schemes, two of which involved Williams allegedly accepting gifts from business owners in exchange for official acts as district attorney. Among the gifts, which totaled $55,000 in value from one business owner and $34,000 from another, were:
- A $205 Louis Vuitton tie
- An iPad
- Travel expenses for Williams and another person to travel to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
- A custom sofa worth $3,200
- A $500 dinner at a Philadelphia restaurant
- A $7,000 check
- An additional $2,000 in cash
- A Burberry watch for Williams, a Burberry purse for a person affiliated with him and “other valuable benefits”
- A 1997 Jaguar XK8 convertible, worth around $4,000, as well as its insurance premiums
Williams is also accused of defrauding a Pennsylvania nursing home, where a relative was living, of $20,000. Prosecutors say he diverted pension and social security dollars to himself.
FBI officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey held a news conference Tuesday afternoon announcing the charges, saying they took the case over from the Philadelphia FBI office to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.
Acting New Jersey U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said he’s unsure when Williams will be taken into custody. He also wouldn’t comment on whether or not prosecutors might consider striking a deal with Williams, but did note that if convicted, the district attorney faces years in prison.
“Mr. Williams simply took money that didn’t belong to him,” Fitzpatrick said. “And then he lied about it.”
A string of text messages included in the indictment showed communication between Williams and Mohammad N. Ali, listed as “Business Owner No. 1,” and a person who prosecutors say Williams engaged in bribery with. Federal officials said Ali paid for trips to Punta Cana and the personalized sofa, and Williams in return sought to help a friend of Ali’s who was facing charges and wanted to avoid prison time.
Williams also allegedly reached out to a police official on Ali’s behalf to inquire about “limiting security screening by law enforcement authorities at the United States border” because the police officer oversaw airport security. Fitzpatrick said the police official did not act in violation of the law and offered few details on what the security measures were.
Federal authorities said Williams also sought bribes from “business owner No. 2,” a Philadelphia bar owner, in exchange for official acts. Prosecutors said Williams made the person an official adviser and drafted a letter on their behalf to the California liquor control board regarding a bar the person owned
Williams, elected in 2009 and the city’s first black district attorney, announced last month during a press conference that he will not seek a third term. Earlier this year, he received a record fine of $62,000 from the Philadelphia Board of Ethics for failing to disclose gifts and sources of income.
The biggest controversy surrounding Williams surfaced last year, when he revealed he had not properly disclosed 89 gifts and five sources of income to his campaign fund from 2010 to 2015, leading to that big Philadelphia Board of Ethics fine. The gifts included items ranging from Eagles and Sixers sideline passes to a free roof repair on his house that was valued at $45,000.
Fitzpatrick said Williams disclosed those gifts only after learning of a federal investigation looking into its activity, though he failed to disclose the Jaguar he allegedly accepted from one of the business owners outlined in the indictment.
It’s unclear if Williams will step down. This week, he announced his Chief of Staff Kathleen E. Martin was named acting first assistant district attorney, typically seen as the No. 2 in command in the Office of the District Attorney. Williams said in February that he would serve out the remainder of his term.
During that February news conference, the district attorney apologized to his staff members for “regrettable mistakes” in his personal and financial life and said his actions “cast an unnecessary shadow” on the office that distracted staff members from the pursuit of justice.
A large field of candidates are running for district attorney, including former prosecutor Joe Khan, former Managing Director Rich Negrin, Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, former prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner and former First Assistant District Attorney Tariq El-Shabazz, who are running as Democrats. Former prosecutor Beth Grossman is running as a Republican.