Philadelphia Prosecutor Pleads Guilty to Taking Bribe

Indicted on 23 counts of corruption, Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams leaves the federal courthouse on June 28 after witness testimony. Williams was taken into federal custody on June 29 after pleading guilty to one count of bribery. (LOWELL NEUMANN NICKEY/CNS)

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Less than halfway through his federal corruption trial, Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams pleaded guilty Thursday morning to a single count of bribery and resigned his office.

Indicted on 23 counts of extortion, bribery and fraud, the plea by 50-year-old Williams cuts off proceedings in their second week.

“I’m sorry for all of this,” the former prosecutor said before surrendering into custody. Williams, who held the distinction of being the first black district attorney elected in Philadelphia and the commonwealth, will remain incarcerated ahead of his sentencing on Oct. 24.

The plea came a day after jurors heard testimony about a $62,000 settlement Williams reached with the city in December 2016 for failing to report gifts he received from area businessman Mohammad Ali and others.

Though the defense had hoped to chalk up Williams’ failure to disclose as a mere ethics violation, Michael Cooke, director of the city’s ethics board, testified Wednesday that the prosecutor seemed intent on evading his office.

Williams neglected to file financial-disclosure forms from the time of his election 2010, and Cooke said the prosecutor’s flippant responses to his office’s queries drew suspicion.

The office continued to hound Williams, Cooke testified, when the prosecutor finally sent over a collection of backlogged reports with notes of “see supplement” attached but failing to include any attachments.

As eventually submitted by Williams, the supplements included disclosures of gifts from Ali and another businessman, William Weiss.

Ali pleaded guilty to bribing Williams this past May, while Weiss gave testimony earlier in the week about Williams’ helping him get his liquor licenses reinstated after a tax conviction.

Cooke told the court that the piecemeal submissions by Williams were unacceptable — that the reports have to be submitted as one, coherent document.

Calling Williams’ behavior with regard to the filings “unusual,” Cooke said his office would have likely opened an investigation earlier if Williams had disclosed the gifts when he was supposed to.

The ethics board finally got the material to open its investigation, and Williams’ bank records were subpoenaed, in 2016 when he submitted his final amended disclosure forms.

While taking Cooke’s testimony Wednesday, prosecutors highlighted an answer Williams gave on a questionnaire about his belated disclosures. “There’s not really a good answer,” Williams wrote. “It was a mistake and I’m trying to fix it.”

On the same form, Williams said no when asked if he had ever solicited gifts from someone seeking official action or with a specific financial interest.

Prosecutors produced evidence over the course of the trial meanwhile that Williams used his office to ensure that Ali, one of the prosecutor’s benefactors, faced less scrutiny at airport security.

Throughout the trial, presided over by U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond, the government painted Williams as a luxury-addicted hustler willing to take money from anyone, including his own mother’s retirement funds, to bankroll his glamorous lifestyle.

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