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August 18, 2016

Seth Williams, please convince us you're not an ethically-challenged buffoon

If the Philadelphia D.A. doesn't personally field questions soon about his blind spot for disclosing gifts, he's got to go

Opinion Seth Williams
Seth Williams Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams

Anybody who’s covered Philadelphia politics locally for any extended period of time has a catalog of stories about corruption and/or rule-bending malfeasance to their credit. That’s just the way it is around these parts. The struggle becomes preventing numbness from diluting shock value.

That hasn’t been a problem in the case of Ethics, Willpower and Document-Filing ignorance vs. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, though.

The story is a couple days old now, so you’re probably well-versed in it. In case you aren’t, here’s a tl;dr version:

A couple weeks before heading off on vacation, Williams let the city Ethics Board know about the little matter of receiving $160,050 in previously undisclosed personal and professional gifts between his 2010 inauguration and 2015. Those disclosures went public as he was off on that vacation.

That chronological timeline meant it’d go public around the same time that his nemesis, former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, was being found guilty of abusing the power of her office. (Whoops!)

Williams' gifts included $45,000 in roof repairs at his pad; airfare and a place to stay on trips to, among other places, Key West, Las Vegas and the Dominican Republic; and cash from pals.

"He has now correctly amended the forms, and he has acted in good faith, and that's the important thing," his attorney Sam Stretton is quoted as saying in a NewsWorks story from Bobby Allyn, who drew the city’s attention to the awesome gift of all: A pre-weight loss portrait of Williams kicking back in a chair with a stogie looking all Boss Tweed.

Now, that’d be hilarious if it didn’t represent a totem for every reason why Philadelphians have to mistrust their elected officials. And it’d be easier to swallow if sitting down for several ego-fueled hours of posing for an artist wasn’t evidence of a disconnect.

While Williams, already facing questions about campaign spending, hides behind the shield of – paraphrased – "OMG, I didn’t realize I had to report potentially problematic gifts because friends gave ’em to me but I totally take responsibility now," this isn’t good.

It’s not good for Williams, who is seeking re-election to his $175,572-a-year job under a “need for greater transparency” mantra. (Because what says transparency more than not knowing the ethical requirements of his office?)

It’s not good for the people of a city so inured to rulebook violations that it seems like the norm rather than the exception. (Because it adds another chapter to the Fattah-Kane-Washington-Perzel-Fumo-many others narrative).

And it’s not good for folks who are now left to wonder whether the five-year swag bag impacted their cases in any way in a court of law. (Because that’s a matter of freedom versus life-altering incarceration.)

But it is good for people who’ve long questioned Williams’ mentality – off-the-record – after seeing him operate in the professional world.

When I contacted a few folks who have worked, or still work, in the field, their reactions – “He’s a buffoon: There’s your article” and, yes, a “Seth Must Go” piece “would be justified” – told me everything I needed to know.

Their words suggest strongly that people on the inside know there are issues with Williams, that despite bringing about some wonderful changes and upgrades while in office, his blind spot for this type of stuff always threatened to derail him.

That it happened at the worst possible time – a heated election year in which Philadelphia has a prominent role, when the state AG awaits sentencing, on the cusp of a re-election effort – feels to them like cosmic justice.

The whole mess reminds me of a call I took 10 years and a month ago from a more seriously challenged elected official.

While the offenses were much more egregious – and illegal – than a slate of Williams slip-ups that could cost him coin instead of years behind bars, former City Councilman Rick Mariano wanted to talk in the waning weeks before he went off to prison for trading the power of his office for cash to pay off credit card debts.

Here’s what Rick said that day, a statement that led me to spend a month reporting and writing a story at the erstwhile Philadelphia City Paper:

"I want to see a story that tells the truth. That I'm not the buffoon they've made me out to be."

Well, no matter what anybody tells me to the contrary, Ricky wasn’t the buffoon they made him out to be. He was genuinely remorseful that he got in over his head and had to pay the price for it. He knows what he did was wrong and, despite throwing some folks under the bus for exploiting him, knew he should’ve done better by himself and those who elected him.

Today, Seth Williams faces a similar challenge as he runs the risk of being voted out of an office that’s made some noteworthy gains under his leadership, but gains that could be rolled back, diminishing his legacy.

People do think he’s a buffoon and, as it stands today, they have every right to. The only way he can prove us otherwise is to stop hiding behind comments from his paid help.

He should stand behind the same podium where he’s excoriated people on the wrong side of the law. He should answer any question asked of him truthfully, instead of offering up “I filed as soon as I realized it” spin. This case is one of failing to disclose rather than a prohibition on the act of receiving; hiding makes it worse than it truly is.

He should close the event by explaining why this sort of stupidity isn’t worthy of the office he holds, that he knows he was in the wrong and that he will spend every campaign hour making the case that it shouldn’t preclude him from another term.

Short of that, I’m hard pressed to find a reason why he shouldn’t be cast aside in favor of a candidate who knows the difference between right and wrong – both personally and professionally.