Feds: Philly DA Williams 'Was Constantly on the Take'

NBC10's Katy Zachry is following the first day of the District Attorney's trial after jury selection only took one day.

(Published Tuesday, June 20, 2017)

The corruption trial of Philadelphia's district attorney began Tuesday with federal prosecutors telling jurors that the city's top law enforcer took tens of thousands of dollars in bribes, pocketed his elderly mother's pension checks, illegally siphoned off money from his own political action committee and misused government vehicles.

Prosecutors said Seth Williams "was constantly on the take," accepting illicitly earned perks such as vacations, cash and a Jaguar convertible in exchange for legal favors.

"Whenever Seth Williams had a chance to put his hand in someone else's pocket and take money, he did," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Vineet Gauri.

Williams' legal team offered a simple response to the allegations: The things the Democrat is accused of doing are not crimes.

Two businessmen bought Williams tickets to an all-inclusive Dominican Republic resort, paid for more than a dozen other flights and wrote him checks worth thousands of dollars, but those actions represented "sloppy" optics, not criminal activity, said defense lawyer Thomas Burke.

"What they're saying he's getting, he's getting, but he's not soliciting. And they're not in a briberous relationship," Burke said.

The lawyer said no case was compromised as a result of Williams' association with the businessmen, who were Williams' friends.

But prosecutors said Williams agreed to leverage his power as district attorney to intervene in legal matters on behalf of the businessmen, often alluding to reciprocal payments shortly before or after requests from his benefactors. They also allege that Williams filed false and misleading financial disclosure forms to conceal what he was doing.

In one instance, according to text messages, moments after saying that he would look into a criminal case of a friend of one of the businessmen, Williams floated the idea of a second all-inclusive vacation to the Punta Cana resort.

"April?" Williams asked in a text message, referencing a possible date for another trip to the Caribbean island where one of the businessmen had also previously paid for him to parasail and get a massage.

Another exchange detailed by the prosecution involved Williams accepting a $7,000 check in return for asking a police official to help one of the businessmen avoid secondary security screenings at Philadelphia International Airport.

Williams is also accused of taking his mother's pension and Social Security checks that were supposed to be used to pay for her nursing home.

His lawyer said the facility did not fully explain administrative processing procedures. "Nobody told him how it worked," Burke said.

Williams took office in 2010 and could have run for a third term this year, but he decided not to seek re-election. The charges against him were announced in March and his law license was suspended, but he has refused calls to resign.

The 29-count indictment has been a staggering blow for a district attorney who won the office on the promise of reform and was previously tasked with rooting out corruption when he served as the city's inspector general.

Gauri, the federal prosecutor, said Williams' experience makes the allegations all the more egregious.

"He knew better than to commit these crimes," he said.

Correction: (June 21, 2017; 4:50 p.m.) An earlier version of this article from the Associated Press erroneously reported the indictment was 23 counts rather than 29.