The district attorney of Philadelphia has a simple defense at his federal corruption trial: He did nothing wrong when he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts while in office.
“These are not crimes,” argued DA Seth Williams’ lawyer Thomas Burke during opening statements Tuesday in Philly federal court. “Did he take those trips? Absolutely. He went to dinner with these guys all the time.”
Williams is charged with illegally using his office as Philadelphia's top prosecutor to enrich himself by accepting gifts in exchange for promised favors and influence.
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But Burke argued that prosecutors will be unable to prove that any "quid pro quo" occurred. He said all gifts were out of friendship, adding that Williams “couldn’t make ends meet” and relied on friends to pay for him to take his daughters on vacation.
In court, Williams wore a tailored suit with a shiny flag lapel pin. He watched the jury throughout opening statements and often nodded in agreement with his attorney.
Williams has defied calls to resign since being indicted in March, and despite a temporary suspension of his law license while facing charges, he is continuing to collect a $175,572 salary out of taxpayers’ pockets. Meanwhile, the office is being run by his first assistant district attorney, Kathleen Martin.
Philadelphia’s first African-American district attorney, Williams, who took office in 2010, in early 2017 was slammed with a $65,000 ethics fine, the largest in Philly history, for failing to report $160,000 worth of gifts.
The federal indictment is based in part on those gifts and is also loaded with damning text messages, that include Williams specifically telling one friend who he had discussed favors with, that he liked a chocolate-colored multipiece luxury couch.
But all the allegations against Williams were dismissed by Burke. He said the fact Williams received the chocolate couch was a chance gift, not a bribe.
The claim that Williams took money intended for his adoptive mother’s nursing home and spent it on himself was due to a paperwork screw-up by the home, Burke claimed: “The reason they weren’t getting the money – it was their own fault."
Accusations that Williams misused money for his re-election campaign are wrong because the laws regarding PAC funds “can be interpreted in any way,” Burke said, whether that means membership at the Union League Club so Williams could meet wealthy campaign donors, as Burke put it, or his alleged PAC expenditures on facials, massages and dinners out.
The claim he abused his access to a city vehicle by ordering staff to leave the car with him at night is wrong because Williams was not a city employee, and thus those rules don’t apply to him, Burke argued. In fact, Williams was saving the taxpayers from having to pay overtime by driving it himself at night and on weekends, Burke said, while the DA is entitled to a car 24 hours a day.
The trial kicked off Tuesday with testimony from a staffer at Williams' mother's nursing home, and is expected to continue Wedneday.