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Update: Top prosecutor pleads not guilty in gifts-for-favors case

Written by MARYCLAIRE DALE/Associated Press | Mar 22, 2017 2:30 PM
sethwilliams_lookingdown.jpg

Photo by AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

(Philadelphia) -- Philadelphia's top prosecutor pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and extortion charges on Wednesday as pressure mounted from the mayor and others for him to resign.

Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams appeared cool and calm as he entered his plea in a courtroom full of reporters. Williams admits he took more than $100,000 in luxury trips, gifts and cash while in office as he went through an expensive divorce. However, his lawyer vowed they would fight charges that he promised any legal breaks in return, a quid pro quo that would render the gifts bribes.

Mayor Jim Kenney called it "deeply shameful" that Williams "has been implicated in such a flagrant violation of the law."

"At a time when our citizens' trust in government is at an all-time low, it is disheartening to see yet another elected official give the public a reason not to trust us," said Kenney, a fellow Democrat. "That this comes at the head of our justice system is even more troubling."

Williams was released on $50,000 bond after a brief hearing. He was fingerprinted by the FBI and surrendered his passport. No trial date was set. He cannot leave eastern Pennsylvania without permission.

Williams, 50, is the city's first black district attorney. He was adopted into a middle-class family as an infant and attended Georgetown Law School before launching his ambitious career.

He is accused of taking five-star Caribbean trips, free flights and $9,000 in cash from a businessman who sought help with a friend's criminal case. The man, whose company sold prepaid phone cards, also sought his help bypassing enhanced airport security during frequent overseas trips, authorities said.

"I need the info ... case number, agent anything so I can write a letter to the correct person of supervisory authority," Williams texted the businessman, a foreign national born in the Middle East. "I want there to be a letter in your file from the D.A. of Philadelphia."

Williams also is accused of helping a gift-giving bar owner and his brother seek a liquor license despite the brother's criminal conviction and spending $20,000 meant for his mother's nursing home care.

The prosecutor belatedly reported on ethics forms last year that he had accepted more than $160,000 in gifts or services from friends, including a new roof on his home, $21,000 in flights and a family stay in Key West, Florida, at the home of a city defense lawyer. The filings, which came after the FBI started investigating, cost him a record $62,000 in city fines. The federal investigation then spiraled, listing additional gifts that authorities said came with strings attached.

Williams, who makes $175,000 a year in the top job, said he tried to keep his daughters in private school and their family home after the divorce. At the same time, he frequented cigar bars and private city clubs, and his love life made headlines when a girlfriend vandalized his city car outside his home.

Defense lawyer Michael Diamondstein said pundits should avoid a rush to judgment. He did not say if Williams would resign.

"Simply because the government makes explosive allegations in a complaint doesn't mean they are going to prove it in a court of law," Diamondstein said after the arraignment, as Williams ducked into a waiting car.

Williams, announcing last month that he would not run for a third term, had said he regretted "mistakes in my personal life and in my personal financial life."
Seven Democrats and a Republican are now running for his job.

A previous story appears below.

(Philadelphia) -- The city's top prosecutor pleaded not guilty at his federal court arraignment on bribery and extortion charges on Wednesday.

Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams previously acknowledged taking more than $100,000 in gifts from friends and associates but has vowed to fight charges he promised help with any court cases or legal matters in return.

Williams was to be released on $50,000 bond. No trial date was set. He surrendered his passport and will be allowed to travel only in eastern Pennsylvania unless he gets permission to go elsewhere.

Williams is accused of taking Caribbean trips, free flights and $9,000 in cash from an unnamed business owner who sought official favors.

He's also 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 a year 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.

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. They would not explain why the foreign traveler sought quicker screenings, but acting New Jersey U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick said no security measures had been thwarted. His office supervised the case given Williams' work ties to Department of Justice 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 charged over the handling of priest sex-abuse complaints. The conviction has since been overturned, although the official served nearly three years in prison.

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