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Philadelphia's top prosecutor denies gifts-for-favors scheme

Written by MaryClaire Dale/The Associated Press | Mar 22, 2017 2:46 AM
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Photo by AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

In this Feb. 10, 2017, file photo, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams speaks during a news conference.

(Philadelphia) -- Philadelphia's top prosecutor has previously acknowledged taking more than $100,000 in gifts from friends and associates, but is vowing to fight federal charges that he promised help with any court cases or legal matters in return.

A bribery and extortion indictment unsealed Tuesday accused Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams of taking Caribbean trips, free flights and $9,000 in cash from an unnamed business owner who sought official favors. He also was accused of misspending $20,000 meant for a relative's nursing home care.

The indictment caps a nearly two-year investigation into Williams' financial affairs. Williams, who makes $175,000 in the top job, has said he ran into financial trouble after a divorce and while paying his daughters' private school tuition.

Defense lawyer Michael Diamondstein said Williams "vehemently denies that he ever compromised any investigation, case or law enforcement function."

The 23-count indictment described gifts from one business owner that included trips Williams took with his then-girlfriend to a resort in the Dominican Republic, where they stayed in a presidential suite; a custom $3,400 sofa; and $9,000 in cash or checks.

In exchange, authorities said, Williams offered to help that man's friend seek reduced jail time in a criminal case his office handled. He also had the businessman meet with an airport police official in an attempt to avoid enhanced screening when returning to the U.S. from abroad, they said.

Williams, who was known to frequent cigar bars and dine at the city's ritzy Union League private club, spent Tuesday huddled with family, a spokesman said. He was expected to surrender and be arraigned on Wednesday.

Williams, the city's first black district attorney, announced last month that he would not run for a third term. The 50-year-old said he showed poor judgment and regretted "mistakes in my personal life and in my personal financial life." Eight people, seven of them Democrats, are running for his seat in the predominantly Democratic city.

As recently as January, Williams had hoped to weather the scandal, vowing to earn back the "trust and respect" of his staff and the public. However, questions about the investigation dogged him as he tried to carry out his duties. The charges announced Tuesday also included honest services fraud.

FBI, IRS and Department of Homeland Security officials declined to elaborate on the charges at an afternoon news conference. They would not explain why the foreign traveler sought quicker screenings, but acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick of New Jersey said no security measures had been thwarted. His office supervised the case given Williams' work ties to Justice Department officials in Philadelphia.

The indictment also offered no evidence that Williams intervened in the criminal case, although texts showed Williams suggested the defendant delay his plea so he could get the file and "see what can be done" to get him a lower jail sentence.

"There is very little I can do the day before without it looking extremely suspicious," Williams texted the defendant's friend.

The charges come as former Democratic Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the first woman elected as the state's top prosecutor, appeals her conviction and 10- to 23-month jail sentence in a perjury and obstruction case last year.

Williams failed to disclose income sources and 89 gifts on financial statements from 2010 through 2015 and omitted 10 more on a belated filing, authorities said. Those gifts, he later acknowledged, included sideline passes for Philadelphia Eagles games for several years to $21,000 in free airfare to a free roof on his house and a $6,500 Rolex watch from a girlfriend.

At the same time, he led a high-profile prosecution of Philadelphia lawmakers who had taken cash or jewelry, valued at perhaps a few thousand dollars, from an informant.

During his seven-year tenure, his office filed the first charges against several Roman Catholic priests and earned a trial conviction against the first U.S. church official ever charged over the handling of priest sex-abuse complaints. The conviction has since been overturned, although the official served nearly three years in prison.

State laws require public officials to file annual reports and list gifts over $250. City officials cannot take anything worth more than $99 from anyone with an interest in any official action. Federal bribery laws typically involve a quid pro quo, or evidence the person got something in exchange for the gift.

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