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His freedom at stake, DA Seth Williams' federal bribery and fraud trial starts Monday

A panel of 140 prospective jurors reports Monday to the federal courthouse in Philadelphia. The judge says testimony could began as soon as Tuesday.

District Attorney Seth Williams arrives for a pretrial hearing at the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia on June 14, 2017.
District Attorney Seth Williams arrives for a pretrial hearing at the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia on June 14, 2017.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

"A new day, a new DA."

That was Seth Williams' slogan in his successful 2009 election campaign for Philadelphia district attorney.

These days, the heady optimism of that first campaign is all but forgotten. Although he continues to draw his $175,572 annual salary until his term ends in January, Williams, 50, is district attorney in title only.

Earlier this year, Williams dropped his candidacy for a third term. His law license has been suspended by agreement with the state Supreme Court, and he has ceded daily operation of the city prosecutor's office to his first assistant, Kathleen Martin. He and his wife are divorced, and the cash-strapped Williams' Overbrook home is on the market.

On Monday begins the most important campaign of Williams' life: his defense against federal corruption charges for which he could face a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if convicted, federal prosecutors say.

At a final pretrial hearing Wednesday, Williams and defense attorney Thomas F. Burke appeared relaxed and confident. Still, no comments were offered to reporters afterward, unlike last month when Burke  described a new set of charges filed against Williams as "laughable and unprosecutable."

The prosecution team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert A. Zauzmer, Eric Moran, and Vineet Gauri was equally circumspect and declined to comment.

The first step in the trial will take place in the large ceremonial courtroom at the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets. There, a panel of 140 prospective jurors drawn from nine Southeastern Pennsylvania counties will be questioned about whether they can render a fair and impartial verdict.

If media coverage of Williams' legal troubles seems inescapable in the Philadelphia area, that might not be the case for prospective jurors from farther reaches of Chester, Berks, Lancaster, Lehigh, and Northampton Counties.

U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond told lawyers at Wednesday's pretrial hearing that he felt confident they could pick a jury of 12 and four alternates in one day — so confident that he told prosecutors to be ready to present witnesses Tuesday. The trial is predicted to last four weeks.

The jury will be asked to decide between two explanations for Williams' conduct since he was elected district attorney.

The government's version is of a man in debt and living far beyond his means, willing to jettison his oath of office and his professional ethics to accept bribes, defraud the government, and his own mother to maintain his lifestyle.

To the defense, Williams is a popular, loquacious man with a wide circle of friends more than willing to lend him money and shower him with vacation trips and other gifts. Williams' use of government vehicles and money earmarked for his mother's nursing-home bills was well within the law, the defense says.

In its trial memorandum filed Monday, prosecutors break down Williams' alleged crimes into five schemes:

  1. Accepting bribes from Feasterville businessman Mohammad N. Ali, 40, who prosecutors say gave thousands of dollars' worth of gifts to Williams between 2010 and 2015. Although Ali had said he had a "personal relationship" with the top prosecutor, he also has admitted asking Williams to help him bypass secondary security screening at Philadelphia International Airport. He also asked Williams to intervene in a drug case against a disc jockey at a Center City nightclub that Ali patronized.

  2. Accepting vacations and a used 1997 Jaguar XK-8 convertible from businessman Michael Weiss, owner of the Center City gay bar Woody's, for his help resolving regulatory problems involving the liquor license for Weiss' bar in California.

  3. Fraud involving using $20,000 designated for his ailing mother's care in a nursing home for personal use.

  4. Defrauding his political action committee, Friends of Seth Williams, by using more than $10,000 in contributions for personal expenses including expensive meals, massages, and facials at the Union League and the Sporting Club at the Bellevue.

  5. Defrauding a federal anticrime program and the city of Philadelphia by using vehicles designated for law enforcement for his personal use.

Ali, who has pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion, has agreed to testify for prosecutors against Williams. Weiss, who was not charged, is also on the government's list of possible witnesses.

Although there's no guarantee that all the people on the prosecution witness list will testify, those who do may provide an interesting window into Williams' life since he was elected district attorney.

They include Stacey Cummings, Williams' ex-girlfriend, who pleaded guilty last year to slashing the tires on two city-owned vehicles parked outside Williams'  house. And Patricia Tobin, assistant general manager of the tony Union League in Center City, where Williams was once a regular.

Others on the prosecution witness list include Williams' predecessor as district attorney, Lynne Abraham; current First Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Martin; and former First Assistant District Attorney Edward McCann.

Many may not be willing witnesses, prosecutors warned in the trial memorandum.

"Certain witnesses might demonstrate hostility, which may manifest itself in a variety of forms, including a reluctance or unwillingness to respond directly to questions, feigned forgetfulness, or even a surly disposition," the government memo reads.

"This might occur because, given the nature of the charges at issue, necessary witnesses are closely associated with [Williams], including as employees, romantic interests, and social friends."

If that happens, prosecutors say they will ask Diamond to rule that the witnesses are hostile, which would allow prosecutors to ask leading questions as if they were cross-examining the witnesses.

Unresolved as of Wednesday's final pretrial hearing was whether the jury would hear a recording of a May 6, 2015, telephone call between Ali and Williams.

A day earlier, on May 5, 2015, according to court documents, Ali and Williams exchanged text messages and a phone call. Ali was worried because he was going to be questioned by IRS agents about a $7,000 check he gave Williams.

The following day, prosecutors alleged, Williams sent a series of texts to Ali "spinning" his version of the $7,000 check and why it was harmless. The texts were followed by Ali's phone call to Williams.

Williams, according to a partial transcript of the call, tells Ali "there's no real reason to be worried if you tell them the truth. There's, there was no quid pro quo. There was no this for that. You were asking me to do something, you didn't tell me to do anything as the DA. You're just my bud."

"You know what I mean?" Williams continues. "You're just that guy, you're the guy that just, like, helps his friends out."

Prosecutors want the phone call kept out of the trial, calling it "self-serving" and saying it would allow Williams to make exculpatory statements to the jury without undergoing cross-examination.

To Diamond's surprise, Burke on Wednesday said he might introduce the recording of the May 6 audio as evidence for the defense.

"You want to introduce that?" the judge asked, suggesting that the recording could be considered incriminating.

"I might," replied Burke. "I haven't decided."