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March 21, 2017

Philly D.A. Seth Williams pleads not guilty to more than 20 federal corruption, bribery charges

City's top prosecutor allegedly took pension, social security money intended to pay for relative's nursing home

Update: March 22, 2017

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams pleaded not guilty to more than 20 federal corruption charges on Wednesday, according to media reports. He has been released on $50,000 bail.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has been indicted on multiple federal corruption offenses for various alleged illegal activities conducted in his role as the city's top prosecutor and in his personal life.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey William E. Fitzpatrick and other federal agents announced the charges and detailed Williams' alleged crimes during a press conference Tuesday afternoon. Authorities said Williams accepted plane tickets, lavish vacations, furniture and cash in exchange for favors he could grant because of his elected position, as well allegedly diverting a relative's pension and Social Security money for his personal use.

Court documents filed Tuesday show Williams, 50, was indicted by a grand jury on more than 20 corruption charges, including 10 counts of promoting bribery, two counts of extortion and 11 counts of wire fraud.

“The indictment alleges that as district attorney, Mr. Williams compromised himself and his elected office by standing ready to help those who were willing to pay him with money, trips, and cars,” Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said. “Mr. Williams’ alleged willingness to compromise his position of public trust in exchange for private financial gain is all the more unfortunate given that he was elected to protect the interests of the people of Philadelphia as their chief law enforcement officer.”

Williams allegedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in of gifts from two business owners between 2010 and 2015, according to the indictment. In January, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics fined Williams $62,000 for failing to disclose $160,000 in gifts and sources of income and detailed the sources of many of those gifts and payments.

But the federal charges also include allegations of fraud, which to date had not been revealed publicly and appear unconnected to Williams power and influence as district attorney.

"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." – Mayor Jim Kenney

According to federal investigators, Williams allegedly diverted a relative's pension and Social Security payments for his personal use, instead of paying for the family member's nursing home costs.

He then allegedly lied to a nursing home employee, claiming his relative had spent the money. And after the relative's friends came forward and gave $10,000 so Williams could cover the expenses, Williams allegedly pocketed the money again, authorities said.

Regarding his dealings as as district attorney, investigators said their evidence includes transcripts of text messages allegedly exchanged between Williams and a business owner, who paid for Williams to travel to the Dominican Republic at a cost of about $6,000; a custom sofa valued at about $3,000; expensive dinners, high-end clothing for Williams; and an iPad for his girlfriend.

That business owner asked for "official assistance in connection with a criminal case and matter" in February 2012, to which Williams responded that he would "look into" the case. 

Shortly after, the business owner texted Williams, "April?" in reference to scheduling plans for the vacation.

"I am merely a thankful beggar and don't want to overstep my bounds in asking ..."  Williams said in reference to the free trip to Punta Cana, according to the court documents. "But we will gladly go."

The business owner later texted him a photo of a custom built sofa that was delivered to Williams' house in April 2012.

"Well, I sincerely appreciate the gift ... but I didn't that expect that, and I don't want you to think I mentioned it so that you would get us a gift. That is a wonderful gift and we are very, very thankful."

The documents show that while Williams stood by the business owner when needed for assistance, he granted personal favors, too. 

In March 2013, the district attorney allegedly accepted a $7,000 check after he attended a meeting with the business owner and a police official who helped the person with a security screening issue at Philadelphia International Airport.

Between March 2012 to July 2015, Williams also helped another business owner, who repaid him in 16 round-trip tickets to destinations that ranged from Florida to Las Vegas for himself, his family and girlfriend.

The unnamed bar owner also gifted Williams a 1997 Jaguar XK8 convertible and about $900.

The bar owner, who was on federal probation for a tax conviction, was appointed as special advisor to the Philadelphia District Attorney's office in November 2012. 

In addition, Williams also issued a letter to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control "in order to influence a then-pending hearing to revoke or suspend" the owner's California liquor license.

Mayor Jim Kenney called the charges "disheartening" in a statement Tuesday.

"It is deeply shameful that the city's chief law enforcement officer has been implicated in such a flagrant violation of the law," he said. "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. That this comes at the heard of our justice system is even more troubling. We must all greatly rise the bar for our behavior and show the citizens of Philadelphia that we are capable of carrying out our most basic responsibilities as elected officials, upholding the law."

Fitzpatrick said that the activity is punishable with prison time that would be "through the roof" at the Tuesday press conference, but that it's "far too early to discuss what the appropriate disposition would be."

Williams arraignment date is pending, Fitzpatrick said.

The Philadelphia Bar Association called for Williams' resignation following his charges. 

Williams has said he started having financial problems when face with  a divorce and tuition costs for his children. He announced in February he will not run for a third term as district attorney. At the time, he said he made the decision because his "mistakes" had "cast an unnecessary shadow over the D.A.'s office."

He said he still intended to serve out the full length of his second term, which concludes at the end of 2017.

Cameron Kline, spokesperson for the District Attorney's office, declined to comment on specifics of the case Tuesday.

"The DA is not in the office today because he is spending time with his family," Kline said in a statement. "I ask that you respect his privacy and the privacy of the men and women of the office so all of us can continue to do our jobs without the distraction of additional media attention."