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February 10, 2017

Rivals celebrate Philly D.A.'s decision not to run again

Politics Elections
John McNesby Joseph Kaczmarek, File/AP

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby, seen in this file photo responding to questions from the news media on Oct. 1, 2012 at F.O.P. headquarters in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams' decision not to seek a third term drew praise from two of his fiercest critics.

John McNesby, the head of the city's police union, reacted with approval upon learning the news on Friday.

"We applaud him for making the move," McNesby said. "He did the right thing. He stepped aside. Now, we can focus on putting someone else in there who will restore a little bit of integrity into the office."

McNesby wasn't the only one gladdened by the district attorney's announcement.

Defense attorney Chuck Peruto, who has sparred with Williams since he was subjected to a lengthy grand jury investigation in the May 2013 death of his girlfriend at his home, rejoiced at the news. 

"I simply smiled," Peruto said. "I'm a lawyer first in the city. I'm really happy for the people. It might sound corny, but I'm really happy for its citizens."

Williams announced Friday morning that he will step away when his term expires at the end of the year, saying his failure to disclose more than $160,000 in gifts had cast "an unnecessary shadow" on the D.A.'s office and its ability to pursue justice.

Peruto is one of the city's best-known defense attorneys, with a client list that includes serial killer Gary Heidnik, mobster Joey Merlino and Joey Coyle, the Philadelphia longshoreman who found $1.2 million in the street and kept it. 

But Peruto says he maintains friendships with some 50 prosecutors who have told him that morale has dropped within the D.A.'s office.

"The morale over there is so bad," Peruto said. "This will pick things up. There's people who have stayed for their entire careers because they just couldn't serve under him. I would say it's a happy day for the city because we lost a totally unethical and morally bankrupt top prosecutor. That in and of itself is a crazy sentence."

Peruto has squabbled with Williams since the prosecutor launched a grand jury investigation into the death of his girlfriend, Julia Law, who was found dead in a bathtub at his Rittenhouse Square apartment. Peruto was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the investigation lasted about eight months, despite the medical examiner ruling that Law's death was accidental. 

Peruto happily took an opportunity to sound off on Williams on Friday, saying his failure to disclose gifts was "absolutely disgusting." He also took issue with Williams reaching plea deals that found four state elected officials guilty of corruption, but allowed them to avoid jail time and keep their pensions. 

"If you get a reaction that's sad or sorry to see him go, I won't believe you," Peruto said. "I just refuse to believe anybody would have anything good to say about him."

Williams also has drawn the ire of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 and McNesby, its outspoken leader, in recent years for failing to bring charges in a number of cases. Earlier this year, the FOP put up a billboard in Northeast Philadelphia that read "HELP WANTED; NEW PHILADELPHIA DISTRICT ATTORNEY."

"We just want somebody that's going to be able to look at each incident fairly and make the right decision," McNesby said. "He wants to be the D.A., the judge and the jury. Unless you have an air-tight case, he doesn't want to charge anybody."

McNesby previously rebuked Williams for failing to charge former Eagles star LeSean McCoy for allegedly engaging in a bar fight with off-duty officers at an Old City club.

In January, McNesby criticized Williams for declining to charge a 16-year-old girl after an altercation with a police officer, saying it was "disappointing" to watch "a once promising district attorney degenerate into a morally and ethically sideline playboy."

McNesby said Friday that Williams' failure to disclose lavish gifts, including a $45,000 roof replacement, was "mind-boggling."

"It's not something you should be doing as a district attorney," McNesby said.

Three Democrats and one Republican have announced they will run to replace Williams, who is in the final year of his second, four-year term. The FOP hasn't endorsed a candidate, but McNesby said it will in the upcoming weeks.

"We're hearing from a lot of ward leaders and from a lot of Democratic officials," McNesby said. "A lot of the different unions are going to sit back and take our lead on it."

Williams' announcement came about three weeks after the city's Board of Ethics fined him $62,000 for failing to disclose gifts and sources of income. He issued an apology, saying his conduct brought "much embarrassment, shame and adverse publicity" to the D.A.'s office.

"We wish him well," McNesby said. "Hopefully, he lands somewhere in private practice."

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