Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has been indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of public corruption and fraud, as well as for allegedly stealing more than $20,000 from his own mother.
Williams is a Democrat who was first elected in 2009, and easily re-elected in 2013. The indictments represent the culmination of a series of scandals that have dogged Williams’ office recently and led him to promise last month not to seek re-election.
The breadth and scope of Williams’ alleged misconduct is staggering, even by the standards of Democratic city machine politics. Williams is accused of accepting bribes in the form of cash and expensive gifts from wealthy Philadelphia citizens in exchange for help with their legal troubles. According to the indictment, Williams accepted expensive clothes, vacations to luxury spots, and even a Jaguar convertible in exchange for favors from his office.
All told, Williams is accused of accepting more than $175,000 in undisclosed “gifts,” for which he has already been fined $62,000 by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics — the largest such fine levied by the board in its history.
Worse still, Williams is accused of having misappropriated more than $20,000 in Social Security and pension income that was intended to pay for his mother’s nursing home expenses and using those funds to pay his personal mortgage and utility bills.
According to the 23-count indictment, Williams repeatedly described himself as “poor” and a “beggar” to wealthy individuals who were targets of investigation by his office and often pled with them for gifts, which they happily provided. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Williams earns an annual salary of $175,572 but has complained publicly about his inability to pay alimony from a 2011 divorce and private school tuition for his daughters.
“I am merely a thankful beggar and don’t want to overstep my bounds in asking,” he wrote in one February 2012 text message to a donor in reference to a second planned Caribbean vacation on the donor’s tab. He told another in 2013 that he “never want[ed] to feel like a drag on your wallet,” yet he allegedly returned again and again to seek the man’s help in paying for trips to California, Florida, and Las Vegas.
Some of those gifts featured prominently in Tuesday’s indictment, including a $3,000 trip Williams took in 2012 with his then-girlfriend to the Dominican Republic, where they stayed in a presidential suite complete with access to a private beach and personal butler.
The excursion was bankrolled by Mohammad N. Ali, a Bucks County businessman who sold old prepaid telephone cards and who, according to the indictment, spared no expense in showering Williams with other gifts, including a $3,212 custom sofa and cash payments of $9,000.
Williams came to national prominence in 2011 with the “Billy Doe” prosecution of three priests and a schoolteacher that was based on the testimony of an altar boy. The case was sensationalized by now-disgraced Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and after Erdely’s story about the alleged rape of a University of Virginia student was exposed as a hoax, journalists observed that many of the allegations involved in the “Billy Doe” case likewise lacked credibility and contained numerous factual discrepancies.
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Williams also came under fire in 2015 when he refused to fire prosecutors, who worked in his office, for sending pornographic, racially charged emails with their government email addresses.
The allegations of public corruption and influence-peddling that led to Williams’ indictment surfaced when the FBI and IRS began a joint investigation into his finances in 2015.