Philly police official: Union League confab arranged by Philly DA Seth Williams 'didn't feel right'
Federal prosecutors called Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan as their lead-off witness for the second week of their bribery and corruption case against Williams.
The Philadelphia Police Department's top homeland security official testified Monday that he felt uncomfortable when District Attorney Seth Williams requested that they meet for a Union League lunch with a businessman whom federal law enforcement agents had warned them both to avoid.
Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan told jurors that he purposely wore his flashiest dress uniform to that March 2013 meeting at the exclusive Center City social club to draw attention to himself and to signal to his lunch guests that he came only in an official capacity.
"It didn't feel right," Sullivan said. "I wanted to make sure that everyone would see me enter and see me leave and understand that this was official business, not some private meeting."
After he left, he said, he went directly to the FBI.
Federal prosecutors called Sullivan as their leadoff witness in the second week of their bribery and corruption case against Williams. They hoped his testimony would bolster their claims made last week that the district attorney's attempts to help Bucks County businessman Mohammad N. Ali went beyond what the defense has described as a constituent service that any elected official would offer.
Testifying over two days, Ali — who made millions selling prepaid cellphone cards and energy drinks – told jurors last week that he had cozied up to Williams and showered him with gifts worth thousands of dollars, including an all-expenses-paid trip to a luxury Dominican Republic resort, to enlist the district attorney's aid with legal woes including the secondary screening to which he was routinely subjected on return trips through Philadelphia International Airport.
Although Ali, Williams, and Sullivan didn't know it at the time, that extra scrutiny was tied to Ali's status as the potential target of an international money laundering investigation.
However, the deputy commissioner said Monday, when Williams first asked him to look into Ali's problem, he thought it was a legitimate law enforcement request. Sullivan testified that he took Williams at his word that he believed Ali to be the victim of racial profiling.
"When a request comes from the district attorney, I feel comfortable that there is validity to it," Sullivan testified. "He is the highest law enforcement official in the city of Philadelphia. If he makes a request, it goes to the top of the list."
Sullivan's efforts on behalf of Ali culminated in February 2012, when Ali let him know that he would be returning to the airport after a trip to the Dominican Republic. Sullivan, then a chief inspector, sent officers who met Ali at the terminal and escorted him through the screening process.
Only afterward, Sullivan testified Monday, was he notified by officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that there was "an issue" with Ali, although at the time those officials did not go into detail, Sullivan said.
"It could have just meant that he was on a particular watch list for a particular reason, as are hundreds of thousands of people," Sullivan said. "It didn't mean that there was an active investigation."
Still, CBP was clear in its message to avoid the situation – a warning that Sullivan told jurors he passed along to the district attorney.
So, when more than a year after that warning, Williams invited Ali and him to lunch, Sullivan said, he was concerned but attended only on the hope that the district attorney might have called the meeting to impart some new information about Ali's status.
No new information was forthcoming, said Sullivan, and both men made the same plea for his assistance again.
"I was uncomfortable," he said, adding that he later reported the meeting to his counterterrorism counterpart in the Philadelphia office of the FBI.
Again, he received a warning to stay away from Ali, Sullivan testified, and again he passed that on to Williams.
"I was a little angry at him," the deputy commissioner said. "My reputation is intact. My character is intact. … It's important that I not be in the company of people who would call my character into question."
In addition to the bribes he allegedly took from Ali, prosecutors have accused Williams, 50, of misusing government vehicles, misspending campaign cash. and siphoning funds meant for his mother's nursing home care. He also is charged with granting official favors in exchange for gifts from another businessman – Michael Weiss, co-owner of the iconic Center City gay bar Woody's — who is expected to testify later Monday.