Williams leaving the James A. Byrne federal courthouse in Philadelphia after his May 11 arraignment on additional corruption charges. (Photo: Paul DAnnunzio/ALM)
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams had a bright future in front of him as a former rising star once considered to be a contender for mayor, or even governor. Now his future, and his freedom, will be put in the hands of a jury weighing the facts in his federal corruption case.
Williams, 50, is set to stand trial on a host of charges after jury selection begins Monday morning. He’s been accused of taking bribes, extortion, misspending campaign money to bankroll parties, commandeering law enforcement vehicles for personal use—and even stealing from his own mother by pocketing money meant for her nursing home care. He’s pleaded not guilty to all charges.
At trial, the city’s embattled top prosecutor will rely on an old friend and former colleague in the District Attorney’s Office, defense lawyer Thomas Burke, to keep him out of jail.
Burke has consistently criticized the government’s case against Williams, at one point describing the charges as “laughable.”
Williams was first indicted in March. After he was hit with a second round of charges in a May superseding indictment, Burke told reporters outside of the courthouse after Williams’ arraignment, “The taxpayers should be aghast at the amount of time and resources the government has spent on this witch hunt against Seth Williams.”
But while Burke, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, may have thought the charges were laughable, the judge presiding over Williams’ trial is likely not amused.
Ronald L. Greenblatt, a criminal defense attorney and managing partner of Greenblatt, Pierce, Funt & Flores in Philadelphia, said U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is “very smart,” but “a very tough judge for the defense to try a case in front of.”
“He’s a very pro-government, anti-defense judge, based on his reputation,” Greenblatt said.
According to another defense attorney who has handled cases before Diamond, Williams is in for a tough slog, especially if he’s convicted.
The attorney said Diamond gives no quarter when it comes to sentencing, often opting for harsher penalties. The attorney also noted that the rapid pace of the prosecution—Williams was first indicted in March and the initial trial date was set for the end of May, quick for the prosecution of a public official—was classic Diamond, who’s known for his no-nonsense demeanor.
The attorney said few judges would have forced parties to prepare for trial in such a short time frame and added that, if convicted, “Seth can expect to get a maximum penalty.”
Diamond reasoned in an April opinion that the swift clip of the case was for the good of the city, as Williams’ law license had just been suspended.
“I am hard-pressed to think of a case where the public’s right to a speedy trial is more pressing than it is here: the largest prosecutors’ office in the commonwealth is being run by someone who is not licensed to practice law and is himself charged with 23 federal crimes,” Diamond said in that opinion.
After the superseding indictment was released and the counts against Williams increased to 29, the trial was pushed back to June 19. While still not an abundance of time to prepare for a complex white-collar criminal trial, both sides have indicated they’re ready.
In the main bribery charges against Williams, prosecutors allege the district attorney accepted lavish gifts like vacations, a car and cash in exchange for performing official favors for local businessmen Mohammed N. Ali, a seller of phone cards and energy drink who pleaded guilty to charges of facilitating bribery and filing false income tax information, and Michael Weiss, owner of the popular Philadelphia gay bar Woody’s. Weiss has not been charged.
As part of a plea deal, Ali has agreed to testify against Williams at trial. At his arraignment in May, Ali, 40, admitted to asking Williams to help his friend Michael Myers get a lighter sentence in his criminal case. Ali also admitted to asking Williams to help him bypass security at Philadelphia International Airport when returning from foreign travel.
Also set to testify for the prosecution is Williams’ old mentor, former longtime District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Abraham groomed Williams for his political ascent and was a close confidant until their falling out, prompted by Williams’ surprise announcement that he would run against her in 2005. Williams lost that race, but was successful in 2009 after Abraham retired from the office at the end of her term.
In April, Abraham and high-powered litigator Richard Sprague sued to have Williams removed from office, but a Philadelphia judge denied their request.
Prior to his indictment, an emotional Williams announced at a March press conference that he wouldn’t seek a third term. The announcement was set against the backdrop of news that he failed to report $160,000 in gifts on his financial disclosure forms, resulting in his payment of a record-setting $60,000 ethics fine.
“I no longer want to stand in the way of the men and women in this office doing justice every day,” Williams had said, explaining his decision not to run again. “I deeply regret my poor judgment that caused these distractions.”
P.J. D’Annunzio can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PJDannunzioTLI.