Woody's owner at Philly DA Seth Williams' trial: 'I don't believe I bribed anyone'
Jurors in Seth Williams' bribery and corruption trial were offered two lenses Tuesday through which to view the relationship between the cash-strapped district attorney and one of the wealthy businessmen who prosecutors say bankrolled his luxury life.
Jurors in Seth Williams' bribery and corruption trial were offered two lenses Tuesday through which to view the cash-strapped district attorney and his relationship to one of the wealthy businessmen who prosecutors say bankrolled his luxurious life.
Government questioning of Michael Weiss — co-owner of the iconic Center City gay bar Woody's — painted Williams as a shameless moocher whose requests for help paying for family vacations and utility bills became so frequent at one point that Weiss considered cutting him off.
But as soon as the defense began its examination, Weiss spoke of Williams as one of his closest friends.
Heretofore laconic, the bar owner was suddenly cracking jokes and laughing over a text he once sent city's top prosecutor asking what "Little Sethy" wanted for his birthday. He cooed over family photos of his niece playing at poolside with Williams' daughters.
By the time he launched into a tale about how the district attorney once dressed up as Santa during a Weiss family Christmas tradition of delivering gifts to homeless children, even U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond had grown tired of it.
"Is this really necessary?" he interrupted.
But as the government's case against Williams entered its sixth day, defense lawyer Thomas F. Burke gambled that it was.
For days, prosecutors have alleged that Williams cozied up to wealthy benefactors, seeking gifts of all-expenses-paid travel, designer accessories, and cash in exchange for offers to bring his considerable political muscle to bear on their legal problems.
In Weiss' case, that meant throwing his clout behind a push to preserve the liquor license for a bar Weiss owned in San Diego when it came under threat in 2013. Williams also named Weiss a special adviser to his office and pulled a police report on a car wreck as a favor for one of the bar owner's associates.
But Burke has pushed back, seeking to downplay those favors and recast what have been painted as bribes as nothing more sinister than gifts shared between close friends.
Over two hours of questioning Tuesday, Burke stressed that the district attorney had very little to offer Weiss, a prominent and well-connected LGBTQ activist in the city, in the way of political clout.
"I don't believe I bribed anyone," Weiss testified at one point.
Burke began his cross-examination by having Weiss tick off a list of all the politicians he'd advised — including U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) and former Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street — and the civic boards on which he'd served.
The lawyer had the bar owner read a statement he gave the FBI last year in which he said he didn't need favors from Williams because he knew plenty of other elected officials to ask.
And as for the 16 round-trip airplane tickets Weiss bought for Williams and his family over a period of five years, Burke shrugged them off.
"You liked to provide gifts and trips to others all the time?" he asked. "What other friends did you provide airline tickets for?"
Weiss joked in response: "The judge would get mad at me because it's a very long list" — one that also included State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.), who Weiss explained had once allowed him to pay for a flight, although he never asked him to do so.
Williams, by contrast, showed no such hesitation and rarely, if ever, offered to pay back his debts — a fact prosecutors stressed repeatedly.
He failed to repay more than $2,000 Weiss and his brother had lent him in 2015, joking instead in a text message shown to jurors Tuesday: "Can I be a greeter or celebrity bartender [at Woody's] to work off my debt?"
Weiss testified that he considered at that point cutting off his frequent gifts to Williams but never pressed the issue out of concern that the district attorney might get upset.
But even the forgiving bar owner showed some flashes of annoyance when discussing the used Jaguar convertible he lent Williams in 2012 — another gift prosecutors have characterized as a bribe.
Williams, he said, had offered to purchase the car from him, but after taking possession never paid him for the vehicle. Years later, as his financial problems grew more acute, he asked Weiss to help him sell it.
Williams also enlisted the aid of his mechanic, Armand Salloum, telling him in a text message, "My girlfriend wants me to sell it because I had some other chick in it."
In a text sent weeks after his indictment this year on bribery, extortion, and fraud charges, he told the mechanic he needed the money from the car sale to pay his lawyers.
But, said Salloum, who also testified Tuesday, two months after that exchange the car remained parked at his garage.
Yet as the mechanic left the witness stand at the end of the day, it was he who paused to offer a government official a gift.
"You want one?" he said to Diamond, the judge, who had complimented Salloum on the black T-shirt he was wearing commemorating his garage's 33rd year in business.
The judge turned him down. Pulling at his judicial robe, Diamond answered: "I'm already wearing something black."
Testimony in the case is expected to resume Wednesday.