Even in politics, where alarming perversions too often parade as acceptable standards, it is pretty astounding for a politician to assert that inadvertent error is the reason for his failure to report receipt of gifts and other free items valued at $160,050 over a five-year period.
Yet, that is the stance Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is taking after he recently filed belated annual financial disclosure forms listing nearly ninety items he received, including luxury vacations, cash, gift cards, tickets to professional sporting events and a Rolex watch that Williams valued at $6,500.
This oops-I-forgot-to-file-the-required-forms claim comes from a man who once served as Philadelphia’s Inspector General, a post tasked with pursuing unethical conduct and corruption. Williams clearly knew he was required to complete those disclosure forms listing all gifts he received on an annual basis.
The FBI and other federal enforcement authorities are now examining Williams’ receipt of those gifts plus allegations about misuse of his campaign funds and irregularities at a non-profit organization created by Williams, a Democrat. Federal probes of Williams’ activities began months before his belated ethics disclosure filings.
Williams, elected as Philadelphia’s first African-American District Attorney in November 2009, entered office enjoying high public support. Most Philadelphians expected he would fulfill his campaign promises to end the unjust practices of his predecessor Lynn Abraham, who was an ardent death penalty advocate who virtually ignored abuses by police ranging from perjury to brutality.
However Williams, while he did initiate some applauded reforms, squandered his political capital and personal image by fighting to sustain wrongful convictions made by his predecessors (including wrongful death penalty convictions), by failing to vigorously fight police abuses and by supporting staff members exposed in the ‘Porngate’ email scandal involving exchanges of sexist/racist/homophobic emails between judges and prosecutors in Pennsylvania.
A prime example of Williams’ continuing the persecution practices of that predecessor he had castigated as a candidate is the recent acquittal of Anthony Wright, a Philadelphia man who spent 25-years of a life-time sentence in prison for a rape-murder he did not commit.
The Innocence Project fought Williams’ DA predecessor Abraham for five years to obtain DNA testing of the evidence that had put Wright in prison. When that DNA testing was finally permitted by an order from the state’s Supreme Court, and it proved Wright innocent, instead of asking for Wright to be released from prison, Williams opposed Wright’s release. Williams took this position of insisting that Williams face a new trial in front of a new jury was taken despite documentation by Innocence Project investigators that police had fabricated evidence and used it against Wright at the original trial.
In that new trial the jury this past week acquitted Wright of all charges after just ninety minutes of deliberation. The jurors and the Innocence Project both termed the retrial of Wright, who is now 44, an outrage.
Williams’ oops-I-forgot-to-file-the-required-forms claim regarding his “gifts,” stands in stark contrast to his posture regarding such monetary benefits to others, demonstrated during a March 2015 press conference. At that press conference Williams feigned scornful indignation when he announced bribery indictments against some state legislators from Philadelphia that had resulted from an undercover sting. Pennsylvania’s then Attorney General had castigated that sting as racially tainted entrapment, a conclusion Williams sternly rejected.
“You don’t get a pass just because you are a friend or members of my political party or race,” DA Williams roared when he announced the indictments of those black state legislators — indictments that included an 81-year-old reverend, a radio gospel music hostess who Williams said he had admired his entire life.
Some of those legislators in that sting claimed they did not list the informant’s cash on their financial disclosure forms because they considered that cash to be gifts from a friend. Now Williams is claiming the same thing: that he did not list cash and other freebies he received because he considered it gifts from friends — including monies from a lawyer/friend Williams supported to become a judge in Philadelphia.
Williams so far does not face bribery or other charges in relation to receipt of his previously unreported gifts like those legislators that Williams convicted through their guilty pleas. One of those legislators, a former Philadelphia policeman shot while stopping a robbery, pleaded guilty to accepting $750. Williams, in 2014, accepted $750 in gifts cards according to his belated disclosure filings.
Shockingly, the total amount of all payoffs to those five legislators ensnared in that controversial sting operation was less than half of just the $45,000 in roofing and other home repairs Williams now reports that he received in the fall of 2013 but failed to report until a few weeks ago.
In 2015 at the very time Williams was publicly congratulating himself for his department’s indictments of bribe-taking legislators, he had just received a “gift” from a Philadelphia lawyer to vacation at that lawyer’s Florida beach house – where Williams had also, we now know, vacationed previously. Williams travelled to that posh beach house on airline tickets purchased by a Philadelphia bar owner –- a man who previously paid the airfare for Williams’ travel to that beach house. Also in 2015, Williams received gifts of champagne, wine and free lawn mowing at his home, according to the amended financial disclosure forms Williams only recently belaedly filed. Some of these gifts reportedly came from an attorney who was defending clents against charges brought by the DA, making the gifts themselves, and Williams’ belated reporting of them, particularly egregious.
In 2014, when Williams convened a grand jury to secure charges from that sting operation quashed by the state’s Attorney General, the recently filed disclosure forms list Williams’ receipt of free tickets to professional baseball and basketball games that included swanky box seating, a vacation at an upscale estate in Virginia and boxing lessons.
Philadelphia’s news media have hammered Williams for his belated disclosure form filings. While a lawyer for Williams termed his belated filings as a “terrible mistake,” an editorial in Philadelphia’s largest daily newspaper carried the headline: “DA Seth Williams just another hypocrite with his hand out.” The headline on a commentary in Philadelphia’s largest African-American owned newspaper lashed Williams with the headline: “Seth has gift for transparent hypocrisy.”
The usually blunt-talking Williams was unusually silent about the strident media reaction to his belated disclosure filings. Nearly a week after the filings he sent an email to his DA office staff apologizing for the “adverse publicity” the filings generated. Missing from his letter was any apology for the fact that he had failed to properly report receipt of gifts for a five-year period.
Days after Williams’ message to his DA office staff Williams sent an email to his political supporters acknowledging his failings. “I take full responsibility on failing to disclose what was required,” Williams’ email stated according to media accounts. Williams’ email declared, “We’ve taken the proper steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again…”
Williams’ actions and inactions as DA have alienated former staunch supporters like Philadelphia attorney Michael Coard who faults a litany of failings — particularly lackluster approaches on hi-profile police brutality cases and vigorous efforts to continue the internationally condemned imprisonment of Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose death penalty for the murder of a white Philadelphia Police officer was overturned on constitutional grounds, but who continues to face a life sentence without possibility of parole.
“Where was Seth when Black folks in Philly needed a courageous Black prosecutor like Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby?” asked Coard, a Philadelphia activist and broadcaster who now is a Williams opponent.
That undercover sting created a huge stink for Williams that pitted him against the state’s first female Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, as well as civic organizations and community groups.
That sting began when Republican Tom Corbett was Attorney General before becoming Governor of Pennsylvania in January 2011. A then Corbett AG office prosecutor, Frank Fina, headed the sting that involved an informant who faced 2,088 corruption charges that Fina conveniently dropped. This tainted informant targeted legislators that he knew professionally and/or through personal friendships.
The informant had targeted nine state legislators from Philadelphia, all Democrats and all but one African-American. After Kane took over as Pennsylvania’s AG in January 2013, she quashed that sting claiming the targeting of so many African-American politicians had been racist.
Her characterization of sting as racist and as entrapment enraged both Fina and Williams, who both publicly assailed Kane. Williams, “insulted” when Kane squashed the sting, moved to prosecute those Philadelphia legislators himself, even convening a grand jury investigation.
Williams hired Fina after his departure from the state AG’s office. A separate investigation by AG Kane discovered emails sent between Pennsylvania AG prosecutors and judges including state Supreme Court justices that were racist, sexist and homophobic. One participant in that racist/sexist email circulation was Frank Fina himself.
Williams vigorously defended Fina and two other ex-AG staffers he had employed, rejecting public demands for their firing because of their participation in the ‘Porngate’ racist/sexist emails. Those demands to dismiss Fina and his AG office colleagues included all five female members of Philadelphia’s City Council and Philadelphia’s NOW chapter.
While those ‘Porngate’ emails led to the removal of two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices, and to other resignations and disciplinary measures, Williams himself turned protector, not prosecutor, with respect to the porngate emailers in his own hire.
Williams proclaimed that his “Porngate”-tainted staff members did not deserve dismissal since their “inappropriate behavior” occurred before they began working in his office. That stance seemingly conflicted with requirements of the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers in Pennsylvania. That code of conduct states in part that a “lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of law” in both professional services and personal affairs.
Williams eventually took wrist-slap actions such as demoting the tainted staff members and giving them sensitivity training. Yet he same Williams who wrist-slapped his staffers has battled for years to imprison a high-ranking Catholic Church official for that former administrator’s failure to remove priests involved in child abuse.
Fina resigned from Williams’ staff weeks before Williams filed his belated disclosure forms. Charges Fina launched against Kane led to her recent conviction (and AG resignation) for leaking grand jury information to the news media. Kane’s leak followed a media leak revealing her squashing of Fina’s sting. A lawyer for one of those sting-snared legislators had criticized Williams for revealing grand jury information during that March 2015 press conference.
In November 2015 Williams announced creation of a new Integrity Officer for his staff. The person selected for that integrity position credited Williams for haveing had the courage to “take on crime and corruption regardless of where the facts may lead…”
From the perspective of many in Philadelphia, facts of ethically questionable conduct now form an embarrassing path to the office door of their city’s top prosecutor: Seth Williams.