By: Jeremy Roebuck, Joseph A. Slobodzian & Mark Fazlollah, philly.com
March 22, 2017
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 23 counts of fraud, extortion, and bribery-related charges.
But the problems of the city’s cash-strapped top prosecutor continued to mount outside the courtroom, a day after federal authorities accused him of repeatedly selling his influence to wealthy benefactors willing to bankroll his luxury tastes.
Ethics watchdogs raised the possibility of reopening their investigation into gifts Williams failed to disclose based on new financial benefits exposed in his indictment.
Meanwhile, the city withdrew funding for his legal defense, saying it could seek to recoup the $42,313 it had already paid out by garnishing his salary and pension benefits.
And even as their boss stood on the wrong side of a defense table in federal court 10 blocks away, Williams’ staff of 300 assistant district attorneys muddled through day-to-day work, while privately grousing about Williams’ alleged misdeeds.
Some expressed frustration at the black mark Williams’ indictment has left on the District Attorney’s Office. Others seemed almost relieved that months of gossip and rumors about his legal plight had finally come to an end — even if it could put their boss in prison.
One even questioned whether the allegations against Williams would undermine the office’s ability to do its job.
“Am I going to have jurors holding his problems against me when I’m in court?” said one prosecutor, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the district attorney’s legal problems.
Williams, 50, said little during his brief arraignment hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Lloret and declined to comment after as he ducked into an awaiting car. He ignored questions on whether he intended to resign before the end of his term in December.
Lynne M. Abraham, Williams’ predecessor, said it should be his prerogative whether to stay or go but bemoaned the damage the case against him would do to the District Attorney’s Office.
“It’s going to take some time for the office to have its honor restored and regain the public trust,” she said.
Williams’ lawyer, Michael J. Diamondstein, immediately shot back at such punditry.
“This indictment is 24 hours old and yet too many politicians and commentators have already tried and convicted Seth Williams in the media,” he said. “Simply because the government makes explosive allegations in a complaint doesn’t mean they’re going to prove it in a court of law.”
Despite the perfunctory nature of Wednesday’s court hearing, the proceedings highlighted the small world of Philadelphia’s legal community and the awkward new alliances and divisions that Williams’ prosecution has already forged.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer, the lead federal prosecutor on the case, greeted Williams with a handshake before the proceedings began.
Diamondstein, who as a defense lawyer routinely squares off against city prosecutors in court, stood at the defense table now representing their boss.
And sitting in the courtroom’s front row was Vicki Humphreys, the lead FBI case agent, who along with Zauzmer, led the corruption investigation that convicted State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo in 2009.
Zauzmer’s cocounsel in that case — John J. Pease III, who has since left the Justice Department and is now a partner at Center City law firm Morgan Lewis — was Williams’ lawyer throughout much of the last year during the investigation that led to his indictment.
A spokesman for the city’s law department said it is standard policy to cut off payments for city officials once they have been charged with a crime. And Diamondstein told the judge Wednesday that it was not yet clear whether he would be representing the district attorney through to his trial.
Williams has openly discussed his problems paying his own bills — a struggle that now lies at the heart of the case against him.
Prosecutors allege he repeatedly turned to wealthy backers to fund his lush lifestyle and accepted Caribbean trips, free flights, and gifts of designer clothes from benefactors seeking help with their legal woes.
In one case cited in the indictment, Williams allegedly offered to alter a plea deal in a criminal case to benefit the friend of one his backers, who had been accused of a crime. Investigators say he intervened on behalf of another gift-giver by writing a letter of support in a dispute the man was having with California authorities over a liquor license for his business.
Williams is also charged with misspending more than $20,000 given by others to pay for his mother’s nursing-home care.
In January, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics assessed the largest fine in its 10-year history for Williams’ failure to report for years more than $175,000 in gifts he had accepted including a new roof, luxury vacations, Eagles sidelines passes, and the use of a defense attorney’s home in Florida.
His $62,000 settlement agreement with the board contained a provision that would allow it to reopen its investigation if new information surfaced on gifts the district attorney still had not disclosed.
Williams failed to report in his amended filings with the city several new gifts mentioned in his indictment, including a $205 Louis Vuitton necktie from a Bucks County businessman and a 1997 Jaguar convertible he received from Michael Weiss, co-owner of Woody’s, a well-known Center City gay bar.
But J. Shane Creamer Jr., the ethics board’s executive director, declined to say Wednesday whether his organization would reopen its investigation.
Meanwhile, at Williams’ offices across from City Hall, his staff pressed on with investigations of their own — the daily crush of cases that fuel the city’s criminal justice system.
“He has to do his thing,” said one prosecutor. “We have to do ours.”