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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.