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The sad, stupid and tragic fall of Seth Williams

The sad, stupid and tragic fall of Seth Williams

The future was limitless for Seth Williams when he was sworn in as district attorney of Philadelphia almost eight years ago.

Williams was the first African-American to ever be elected district attorney in the state of Pennsylvania. At the time of his election in 2009 it was easy to imagine him going on to greater things since the district attorney position has served as a launching pad for many of the previous occupants of the office.

Former district attorney Arlen Specter became a senator, Ed Rendell became mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania, and Ronald Castille became Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

But Williams will never hold any of those positions, and he may soon lose his freedom. With his term as district attorney expiring at the end of 2017 Williams has been spending his days in a federal courthouse defending himself against bribery and extortion charges.

Williams is accused of using campaign funds for his personal use and showing favoritism to supporters who gave him money. He received $160,000 worth of gifts, some of which came from businessman Mohammad Ali, including a Caribbean vacation and a $3,200 couch, while Williams helped Ali with issues he had with security screeners at Philadelphia International Airport and looked into a criminal case that involved an associate of Ali’s.

Ali testified against Williams last week.

“It’s good to know someone in power,” Ali said. “If you ever need anything, it’s good to have someone make a phone call.”

Williams is also accused of accepting a Jaguar convertible and accepting free vacations from businessman Michael Weiss, who is the owner of a prominent Philadelphia gay bar called Woody’s. In return Williams helped Weiss deal with regulatory problems involving the liquor license for another bar Weiss owned in California, prosecutors said.

Weiss took the stand earlier this week. When prosecutors asked him if he’s bribed Williams, he answered with a shrug.

Lawyers for Williams argue that while he made mistakes, he never broke the law and that the gifts he accepted were not for future favors.

Williams’s fall from grace is also tragic. He took office promising to help reform the criminal justice system, but today Philadelphia’s jail incarceration rate is higher than anywhere in the country and about 25 percent of the people arrested for misdemeanors remain in jail because they can’t afford to pay for bail.

As my colleague Josie Duffy Rice wrote earlier this year about Williams, “Over the past seven years, he has tried to look the part of the bombastic, idealistic outsider fighting for justice. He has behaved instead like a timorous yet power-hungry insider fighting for no one. He has either valued the wrong principles or none at all, and poor people and communities of color have had to pay.”

Williams is still the DA in Philadelphia but has temporarily surrendered his law license. He is not running for reelection and is likely to be succeeded by civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, who won the Democratic primary earlier this year on a promise of ending cash bail, holding police accountable and trying to keep more people out of jails and prisons.

Krasner will face off against Republican nominee Beth Grossman in November. But Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one in the City of Brotherly Love, making Krasner the favorite.

Williams’s trial is expected to continue for several weeks.

California district attorney resigns after pleading no contest to felony

California district attorney resigns after pleading no contest to felony

Contra Costa District Attorney Mark Peterson has resigned in disgrace after taking thousands of dollars from his campaign account and spending it on meals, clothes and for other personal needs.

Peterson was charged with 13 felonies by the office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, but within hours had resigned and pleaded no contest to one felony charge of perjury for making false statements on state campaign disclosure documents, with all the other counts being dropped.

The charges stem from Peterson using $66,000 of campaign money for personal use. He was sentenced to 250 hours of community service, three years of probation and will be prohibited from running for public office during his probation.

He could also face disbarment or have his law license suspended.

Peterson was in his second term of office and in the process of running for a third term. He was first elected in 2010 and reelected without an opponent in 2014.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “The actions brought a remarkably swift conclusion to a rare criminal case filed by state prosecutors against an elected county district attorney.”

Peterson was previously fined $45,000 by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. “According to the FPPC inquiry, Peterson used campaign funds for about 600 personal expenditures totaling $66,372, including groceries, jewelry store bills and movie tickets,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

A civil grand jury had also recommended that Peterson resign. That recommendation was supported by the editorial board of the East Bay Times.

“If Contra Costa District Attorney Mark Peterson cared one iota about the integrity of his office and the reputation of county law enforcement, he would do the honorable thing: resign,” the editorial said. “But Peterson doesn’t care and he’s not honorable. Rather, he’s a self-centered law-breaker.”

Peterson’s departure will be welcomed by criminal justice advocates. Throughout his tenure in office Peterson has supported minimum mandatory sentencing like three strikes and you’re out, claimed racism has nothing to do with the large number of black people in prison, and also vocally supportedthe death penalty even as his neighboring prosecutor, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, has repeatedly called for ending it.

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Los Angeles Can Take Further Steps to Protect Its Immigrant Neighbors

Los Angeles Can Take Further Steps to Protect Its Immigrant Neighbors

Donald Trump’s presidency represents a serious threat to undocumented immigrants across the country and here in Los Angeles. Mayor Eric Garcetti has boldly rejected President Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, but if the mayor and locally elected leaders truly want to protect immigrant Angelenos, they must commit to ending “broken windows” policing and other practices, which put many people at great risk of deportation for doing little more than sleeping on a sidewalk.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey has a significant amount of discretion when it comes to recognizing and responding to the threats faced by immigrants who have been arrested for minor infractions. Prosecutors consider factors unrelated to the crime all the time when deciding how to charge an individual. Because President Trump’s Executive Order criminalizes people charged with any crime, however minor, it is vital that prosecutors in sanctuary cities recognize the consequences of charging immigrants with low-level offenses, such as traffic violations or loitering, and use their discretion wisely.

Prosecutors should also stop asking for cash bail, which results in people who can’t afford bail being held in detention. Undocumented immigrants are particularly likely to be cash-poor, and holding them in jail because of an inability to post bail makes them “sitting ducks” for ICE. Studies show that bail has little impact on public safety, and a 2011 state law gives the Board of Supervisors the power to authorize risk-based, no-money pretrial release, but as of early 2017 a cash bail system is still in place.

Mayor Garcetti has supported the California Values Act (SB54), and has said the city will not participate in the President’s deportation program, both of which are important steps. But city officials also have significant discretion over how closely local law enforcement agencies are allowed to cooperate with ICE officials. For example, Mayor Steve Fulop of Jersey City recently signed an executive order barring “local police and government agencies from collaborating with immigration authorities unless mandated by law or a court.” He also ordered that federal authorities get a warrant before searching public facilities. Mayor Garcetti should follow his lead and affirmatively bar the police department from acting as an arm of ICE without a court order.

Furthermore, city councils also have tremendous discretion in determining which minor offenses are considered prosecutable, and a new report by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project urges mayors and city councils to rethink how people are sucked into the criminal justice system. The Los Angeles City Council has taken an important step in decriminalizing street vending, believing that continued criminalization would open dozens of business owners up to deportation. However, according to a 2016 study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law, the city still has two dozen laws against “sitting, standing, and resting,” “sleeping, camping, and lodging,” and “begging and panhandling.” These laws open residents up to unnecessary contact with law enforcement. Mayor Garcetti and the city council should enact decriminalization ordinances for these kind of offenses.

Because criminal justice reform and sanctuary city policies are inextricably linked, local leaders have a significant impact on protections for undocumented persons. Mayor Garcetti’s commitment to building trust with immigrant communities is admirable, and he and the rest of the city and county government should reinforce that commitment by using the power of the criminal justice system to protect the most vulnerable among us. Isn’t that what our religious traditions call us to — to treat everyone as a citizen and as our kin? I pray that Los Angeles will lead the way to an American table of belonging, accountability, and human flourishing.

Rev. Zachary Hoover is the Executive Director of LA Voice PICO, an interfaith community organization that unites people from diverse backgrounds to improve the quality of life of Los Angeles residents.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are Rev. Hoover’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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