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At DA Seth Williams' trial, prosecutors zero in on alleged theft from mother

Prosecutors cut straight to one of the most shocking allegations of their case - that in addition to accepting payoffs and defrauding both the government and his campaign, the city's top prosecutor also stole from his own mother.

DA Seth Williams walks into the federal courthouse.
DA Seth Williams walks into the federal courthouse.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

For a bedridden octogenarian confined to a Darby Borough nursing home, Imelda Williams' spending habits appeared to be as varied as they were unusual.

Her bank records indicated she was a frequent patron of clothing shops like Old Navy and Juicy Couture. She regularly paid dues to the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and once cut a check to Pennsylvania State University with "WE ARE" scrawled in the memo line.

But with an exhaustive review of her financial records Wednesday, federal prosecutors sought to lay the blame for Williams' free hand with her pocketbook squarely at the feet of her 50-year-old son, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

The city's top prosecutor routinely spent his mother's money without her knowledge, they said on the second day of his bribery and fraud trial, even as the nursing home where he had placed her was clamoring for funds to cover the costs of her care.

"Did you see any money that was paid for the benefit of Imelda Williams?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer asked Cynthia Fusco, a Justice Department auditor who scoured Imelda Williams' bank accounts as part of the investigation into the city's top prosecutor.

Fusco did not hesitate with her response: "No, I did not."

With Fusco's testimony, prosecutors cut to the heart of one of the most shocking allegations against the cash-strapped district attorney – that in addition to accepting payoffs and defrauding the government and his campaign, he also diverted his mother's savings, pension payments, and Social Security income to cover his mounting debts.

But while government witnesses continued to paint Williams as a man who frequently turned to the money of others to finance a lifestyle well beyond his means, his lawyer, Thomas Burke, endeavored to suggest that his client was simply unaware of the financial obligations he owed for his mother's care at St. Francis Country House.

Officials of the nursing home testified Wednesday that Williams quickly fell behind on paying for her care, racking up nearly $9,000 in past-due bills in the first year his mother was at St. Francis.

When officials from St. Francis came to collect, Williams dodged their phone calls and did not return their messages, said the facility's financial analyst, Susan Rhoton.

In his cross-examinations, Burke sought to demonstrate that Williams remained a dutiful son, visiting his mother often and even writing an email to the staff when she complained about the food. He reiterated in his questioning whether it was possible that facility staff had not thoroughly gone over its billing with Williams when his mother was admitted in February 2012.

"Would you agree with me that an $8,000, $9,000, or $10,000 bill all of a sudden could be a shock?" Burke asked.

Fusco, the government auditor, told jurors Wednesday she also examined Williams' own finances and found him to be living a hand-to-mouth existence. Despite annual income of more than $190,000, he appeared to struggle to pay his gas bills and tuition at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood for his daughters.

When tuition bills came due, she said, Williams wrote the school, citing his recent divorce, as he pleaded for any financial aid it could offer.

"I have no savings and my operational budget is paycheck-to-paycheck," Fusco read from one of the district attorney's letters. "I am willing to contribute my time and talent to speaking events."

But as he sought handouts from the school and his mother's bills continued to pile up, Williams turned to his campaign fund to cover expenses for his social life at the elite Union League.

Also testifying Wednesday, Patricia Tobin, assistant general manager at the Center City social club, walked jurors through piles of receipts detailing elaborate dinner and social events Williams attended there and paid for with a campaign credit card.

But even there, Tobin testified, Williams' money problems caught up to him, forcing him to resign his membership last year as "the dues and fees just kept mounting."

When a family friend wrote Williams a $10,000 check in 2012, he made his intention clear, the man's wife told jurors Wednesday.

The money wasn't given to pay the district attorney's mortgage, Sylvia Randolph testified, nor was it meant to pay his electricity bills.

Instead, said Randolph — a retired librarian who was ushered into court in a wheelchair – "it was to be used for [his] mother … to pay for her medical expenses."

But as Burke sought to suggest through his questioning that no one had explained to Williams that any money given to his mother should have been sent to her nursing home, Kathleen DeFriece, St. Francis' director of accounts receivable, who began her testimony Tuesday, simply scoffed.

"You don't just drop your mother off and say, 'I'm out of here,' " she said. "You have to sit and take the time. He signed the paperwork. He signed that he was responsible. You don't just sign paperwork and blame someone else when it doesn't get done."

Williams faces 29 counts including bribery, extortion, and honest services fraud, which threaten to send him to prison for up to 20 years if he is convicted.

The trial is to resume Thursday.

Keep up with developments in Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams' case with our day-by-day recaps and our explainer on everything you need to know about the case.