Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams resigned his office last week suddenly and agreed to a guilty plea for bribery. This was an abrupt and surprise move that brought an end to a federal bribery trial that had brought out many details of Williams’ personal life. It also cast a long shadow over the final, sad days of a once very promising Pennsylvania political career.
The sudden end to the federal bribery case was made even more strange when the presiding judge announced after accepting Williams’ decision that the disgraced DA be handcuffed immediately and taken to state prison.
According to US District Judge Paul Diamond, Williams betrayed his public office as well as sold it. He added that he was appalled by the evidence that was presented by the prosecution.
As he was led from the courtroom by US marshals, his wife broke down in tears. Jurors, who had heard two weeks of highly incriminating testimony, were shocked; most expected to be rendering their verdict within a few days.
Under order from the judge, Williams’ resignation letter was quickly scrawled on a piece of notebook paper moments before the final hearing. It was delivered to the mayor’s office, and the Board of Judges for Philadelphia scrambled to name a temporary replacement.
Williams told the court before he was led away to prison that he was sorry for what he did. He was nearly in tears, and he now faces up to five years in prison.
A Once Promising Political Career Ends in Ruins
Williams’ last public words were the end of his political and legal career. It began in 2010 when he was named DA. Williams came into office promising major changes in the justice system. However, his good intentions were soon overshadowed by several scandals involving money, his personal life, and the way he made personnel decisions.
Williams this year had been charged with 29 counts of bribery, fraud and honest services fraud. Still, the former DA had held onto his office and his $176,000 salary. He vowed over and over that his name would be cleared at trial.
It was unknown last week what made Williams reverse course and plead guilty. He had even turned down earlier plea deals from prosecutors before his federal indictment in the spring.
His lawyer told the media that Williams had struggled with the decision to plead guilty, and was up late at night for days thinking it through. The deal was struck with prosecutors late at night on June 29.
Ex-DA Sought Money for Life He Couldn’t Afford
During the two week trial, US attorneys described former Philly DA Williams as a moocher who repeatedly tried to use his office to obtain money to support a lavish lifestyle.
Two businessmen from Philadelphia testified that they gave Williams gifts of money, vacations, luxury goods. They hoped, they said that he would repay them by using the DA’s office to remove various legal issues that affected their businesses.
But those gifts were not enough, according to the government’s witnesses. The ex-DA then raided his campaign funds and money that was intended to take care of his mother in a nursing home.
Williams tried to claim during the trial that he was using campaign funds on luxuries that would supposedly make him more electable. Some of the funds were illegally used for deep tissue massages and facials. He also spent thousands of dollars in campaign funds per year to pay for membership dues at an expensive, exclusive city gym.
Judge Refuses To Leave Williams Free Until Sentencing
Williams pleaded with Diamond to allow him to stay out of prison until he is sentenced on Oct. 24, 2017. He cited his three young daughters, and his financial inability to flee.
His defense attorney argued that he does not have the financial means to leave the area or the country. Williams is deeply in debt, no salary and does not even own a vehicle.
Williams also told the court that he only had $150 or $200 in his checking account.
Severe Financial Penalties in Addition to Prison
Under the terms of the plea deal, Williams agreed to surrender $65,000. He also may be fined as much as $250,000 and will probably face restitution orders from the federal court.
Worse, the city’s controller revoked Williams’ pension and froze the $117,000 he had paid into it.
Williams also is in debt to the Ethic Board after he agreed to pay a $62,000 fine because of his belated disclosure of receiving $175,000 in gifts over the last five years.
The deal virtually ensures that his license to practice law will be permanently revoked. Legal experts following the case expect he will face close to five years in prison, the higher end of the federal sentencing range.
Sources familiar with Williams’ defense told the press that he turned down an offer only a few hours before his March 2017 indictment. That would have mandated a guilty plea to the same bribery count, but it would have precluded the other crimes reaching the desk of the sentencing judge.
Williams Likely Committed Other Crimes
In late June testimony, one of Williams’ employees in the DA’s office admitted how she had started her job there just after her own personal bankruptcy. She sought a salary of only $1000 per month so that she could still collect unemployment benefits while she was working.
This scheme, which she claimed was approved by Williams, was threatened last year when she earned a bonus for running a fundraising event that exceeded expectations. Instead of taking the check herself, she wrote a campaign check to her child’s father.
Bribery Strongly Frowned Upon by Federal Judges
Charges of bribery are taken very seriously at the federal level. Any elected or appointed public official who abuses his or her office for personal gain will typically be treated harshly by the presiding judge.
According to Chapter 11 of the US Code, bribery is defined as any act where a person gives, offers or promises anything of financial value to any public official to gain influence over an act of that office. Precedent indicates that the person does not need to even be an elected or appointed official when the offense occurs. He or she can merely be a candidate for office.
Bribery is a federal crime when the person who is the target or the committer of bribery is a federal official.
Federal law states that both the person who engages in bribery and the one who accepts it can be sentenced under federal bribery laws.
Williams also was charged with fraud, although that federal charge may have been dropped in the plea deal. Fraud is commonly charged along with bribery in many federal cases.
The most common type of fraud today is wire fraud, which is any type of fraud that uses radio, TV or telecommunications equipment across state lines. A public official who engages in wire fraud is likely facing an aggravated charge that can result in more years in prison.