Seth Williams' lawyer sought Wednesday to justify the thousands of dollars of campaign cash the Philadelphia district attorney paid for membership dues and spa services at a pricey Center City gym by suggesting that "trimming down" and "getting in shape" made him more electable.
But as defense lawyer Thomas F. Burke offered that explanation to Lisette Gonzalez, the former director of Williams' political action committee, all she could do was cringe.
"There are a lot of bigger candidates who run and win," she said. "I can't agree with that at all."
That debate over the potential of portly politicians was hardly the most unusual thing to happen on the seventh day of the district attorney's federal corruption trial – a day on which jurors were asked to weigh whether Williams' monthly massages and facials, etiquette classes for his daughters, and his girlfriend's nearly $2,700 birthday bash constituted appropriate campaign expenses.
The day began with Burke brandishing to jurors the cover of a gym magazine featuring his client — in workout gear, biceps bulging – and later featured Gonzalez casually confessing from the witness stand to unemployment and bankruptcy fraud as if it were nothing more serious than speeding.
Throughout, Burke described the more than $100,000 in political donations his client paid to exclusive clubs across the city as a necessary cost for a candidate without a built-in political network.
"The DA can't award contracts to anyone. The DA doesn't perform any legislative acts," he said. "If he can't sell legislation, he has to sell himself."
Wednesday's testimony signaled a shift in focus to another key aspect of the federal case against the city's cash-strapped prosecutor.
For days, government lawyers have presented evidence tied to bribes that Williams allegedly accepted from wealthy benefactors offering all-expenses-paid travel, designer goods, and cash to fuel a lifestyle beyond what his salary as a public servant would support.
But witnesses Wednesday said Williams' pursuit of the high life nearly drained his campaign coffers, too.
Gonzalez, who managed the district attorney's political action committee between 2011 and 2015, testified that he prioritized his spending at the Union League and the exclusive Sporting Club at the Bellevue above paying the campaign's bills. Invoices from both venues, she said, constituted two of the largest expenditures the campaign faced each month.
"There were times we couldn't pay our phone bill and times when I didn't get paid," she said. "Who wants to work in that way? It's just not a good way to do business."
Williams spent thousands of dollars at the Sporting Club between 2011 and 2016 on an executive membership, gym clothes, and a series of "deep-tissue massages" and "pore cleansing facials," the club's general manager testified.
Thousands more went to the Union League, where the district attorney hosted some political functions, but also used campaign money to buy tickets for social dinners with friends and events like a father-daughter dance.
But Burke, in his questioning, cast both venues as places where Williams developed and maintained contacts that could further his political goals. Any donation money he spent at either place, the lawyer suggested, was an appropriate expense under Pennsylvania's relatively loose campaign finance laws, which permit nearly all expenditures that could influence the outcome of an election.
And it wasn't as if the Sporting Club was embarrassed to have Williams as a member, he said, as he displayed to jurors the gym's member magazine featuring a cover story on the district attorney's workout regimen.
"So, when he's over at the Union League and the Sporting Club, he's shaking hands, he's meeting people, he's selling himself, correct?" the lawyer asked Gonzalez at one point. "The cost of maintaining donor relationships is also an appropriate expenditure, correct?
She disagreed and pointed to one expense in particular – a 2015 birthday party Williams threw for his girlfriend at the Union League and charged to his campaign debit card – that made Gonzalez so uncomfortable she didn't attend.
"I thought it was a personal expenditure," she said.
But Gonzalez wasn't always so scrupulous, either.
In an admission she tossed off almost as an afterthought, she described how when she began her job with Williams she had just declared personal bankruptcy and sought a salary of only $1,000 a month so she could continue to collect unemployment benefits while working.
That scheme, she said, was threatened when one month she earned a substantial bonus for running a successful fund-raising event. Instead of taking the money herself, she said, she cut a campaign check to the father of her child, who had done no work to earn it.
Her breezy confession left U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond scratching his head. He noted after she left the courtroom that she had just admitted to "committing unemployment fraud" and another misuse of campaign funds – crimes that prosecutors had not even alleged in their indictment.
But asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Moran whether Williams was aware of her plan, Gonzalez told jurors that the district attorney was the one who approved it.
Testimony in the case is expected to continue Thursday.