Federal prosecutors have charged Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams with 23 counts of bribery, extortion and fraud, ending fevered speculation that a long-running investigation into the DA’s finances would lead to an indictment.
The individual charges range in severity but carry combined criminal sentences exceeding Williams’ natural lifespan – although Acting New Jersey US Attorney William Fitzpatrick would not tell reporters what type of sentence his office would seek if Williams is convicted. The state has already moved to seize Williams’ assets as restitution for ill-gotten gains.
The indictment itself is scandalizing: Williams repeatedly peddled his influence in exchange for vacations; a used Jaguar XK8 ($4,700); a sofa; and cold, hard cash. He not only accepted but also actively solicited bribes from bar owners with various legal problems. He defrauded his own family and a nursing home, blowing money intended for an elderly relative.
“He performed official acts for these businessmen,” Fitzpatrick said. “And he also misappropriated money that was intended for care of a relative. He spent the money for his own benefit.”
The first counts stem from exchanges with businessman Mohammed N. Ali, who lavished Williams with a Louis Vuitton tie ($205), trips to a Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic ($4,805), a custom chocolate-colored couch ($3,200) and, eventually, thousands of dollars in cash.
“I am merely a thankful beggar and I don’t want to overstep my bounds...but we will gladly go,” Williams texted the businessman about a trip to Punta Cana in 2012.
During and after a joint vacation to Punta Cana, Ali asked Williams to help a friend who had recently pleaded guilty to a crime but “doesn’t wanna do jail.” He later asked the DA, whom he referred to as “Boss Man,” to help another friend who had caught criminal charges but “doesn’t want to go to jail.”
Williams told Ali: “I have no problem looking into anything.”
“I know you would help me but I wasn’t sure if it’s something that can bring suspicion, and this is the last thing I want to do to a friend like you Seth!” Ali writes. “I care about you, I want to see you the next mayor and the next governor and maybe the next president.”
Via text, Williams told Ali to let him know about future trips to Punta Cana or Las Vegas.
Ali later asked the DA for help arranging a meeting with law enforcement officials in order to bypass certain airport security procedures – Williams, again, agreed to arrange a meeting.
Fitzpatrick declined to describe Ali’s motive in seeking these exemptions, but that no further actions took place as a result of the meeting.
Other charges detail Williams’s relationship with Michael Weiss, owner of the Gayborhood bar Woody’s, and an unnamed associate from 2012 to 2015. Williams was wined, dined and flown to San Diego and Florida with Weiss; the businessman even delivered a used 1997 Jaguar XK8 to the DA.
In return, Williams appointed Michael Weiss to a “special advisor” position within his office, even going so far as to buy him a DAO badge and leather holder with campaign funds, along with other official perks.
“Have you flashed your badge lately?” he joked, in one text exchange with Weiss.
But Weiss was still struggling with a 2010 federal tax indictment. He later asked Williams to write a letter vouching for his character during a related California alcohol board hearing that aimed to revoke the businessman’s liquor license at his bar in San Diego. In 2015, Weiss asked Williams to pull a police report related to a friend’s car accident on his behalf.
Again, Williams agreed, but often casually asked for free plane tickets or money to help with his mounting financial troubles, which he seemed to pin on girlfriend Stacey Cummings in one text message.
In another message, he expressed gratitude for Weiss’ illicit gifts.
“Can I be a greeter or celebrity bartender to work off my debt to you and [a business associate]? LOL,” Williams wrote Weiss.
In almost every case, Williams failed to report the gifts he received, even after he reluctantly amended statements of financial interest last year to include $140,000 in previously unreported gifts.
The evidence contained in the indictment, mostly text exchanges sent or received by Williams, paints a grim picture of Williams as a self-interested public official who knowingly and surreptitiously used his position to enrich himself.
“I may call you from a random pay phone tonight,” Williams told Weiss in a 2015 text message, shortly before Philadelphia's top law enforcement official asked the businessman for more money.
Williams’ acts of self-enrichment weren’t limited to bar owners and businessmen. In the final part of the 50-page indictment, he is charged with defrauding a family member and a nursing home of some $20,000 designated to pay for a family member’s residency at the nursing home.
Although there has been no official response yet from Williams, today’s indictment calls into question a statement he made at a February news conference announcing he would not run for re-election due to the growing legal cloud over his head. Despite his self-inflicted wounds, Williams stated that he would serve out the remainder of his term. However, now that he is facing a chorus of calls to step down from the legal and political community, it seems likely that there is at least one more promise for him to break to the citizens of Philadelphia.