Seth Williams defends retaining 3 but also says he needs more information
The political pressure on Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams over the last month has been furious and unrelenting. The message, from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, from fellow Democrats to women's groups, in letters and in formal resolutions, has been unequivocal: Fire the three prosecutors entangled in the "Porngate" scandal.
The political pressure on Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams over the last month has been furious and unrelenting.
The message, from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, from fellow Democrats to women's groups, in letters and in formal resolutions, has been unequivocal: Fire the three prosecutors entangled in the "Porngate" scandal.
The louder the criticism, the more silent Williams grew.
Last week, he defended keeping the three men on his payroll, calling them talented, even "phenomenal" prosecutors. But Williams also acknowledged that he did not have all the facts when he decided how to discipline them, saying he based his decision on a review of the offensive emails that had been available to him.
Williams left the door open to reevaluating their punishment, which was one day of sensitivity training, but he said the only way for him and others to fairly assess the matter is for all the messages to be made public.
Williams called on Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who has released only a sampling of the messages since discovering them more than a year ago, to identify every porn email recipient and sender, and make public the contents of every offensive email.
"I am personally saying mea culpa," Williams said in an interview last week. "I needed all the evidence, and I didn't have it. And we need all of it, to restore the public's trust across this commonwealth."
The prosecutors - Frank Fina, Marc Costanzo, and Patrick Blessington - declined to comment. All worked for the state Attorney General's Office before Kane was elected in 2012. They exchanged the emails between 2008 and 2012.
Earlier this month, Williams transferred them to lower-profile positions in the office, stripping them of the ability to handle criminal cases. Through a spokeswoman, Williams said the move was unconnected to the outcry over the emails.
Nina Ahmad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women and one of the toughest critics of Williams' handling of the matter, said nothing short of firing the prosecutors would quiet the growing discontent. She called Williams' call for more information "disingenuous."
"What has been released has been enough to incriminate these men, who have clearly shown their deeply rooted biases," she said.
Though Blessington's emails were released more than a year ago, Fina's and Costanzo's messages became public in August. They were attached to a court filing by Kane that was unsealed by the state Supreme Court.
In it, Kane, who now faces criminal charges, argued that the case against her was "corruptly manufactured" by Fina and Costanzo to cover up their having viewed pornography on state computers.
She shared with the court 20 emails that were sent or received by the two men, calling the messages "misogynistic, pornographic, racist, obscene, and offensive."
Of those, Fina sent or forwarded eight and received 11. Costanzo received nine, but sent none.
As for Blessington, Kane last year shared with reporters several dozen emails, all of which she said Blessington had received.
Many of the messages contained images of naked women. Others included crude jokes that played on racial and gender stereotypes or mocked obese people, women, blacks, and gays.
One email, received by Costanzo in 2010, swiftly became the rallying cry among those pushing Williams to fire the men. It was titled "Hot Ghetto Mess!" and contained images mocking African Americans, including a photo of a black baby holding a gun.
Fina was not among those who received that email, but he twice forwarded messages containing joke messages that played upon stereotypes, including that blacks love to eat fried chicken.
Williams said he based his decision on how to discipline the three prosecutors on the messages that Kane has made available.
On reflection, he said, "I failed. I should have asked at that point for all the emails so I could have had the complete picture - from everyone."
Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said she intends to make all the emails public, but he would not say when she might do so.
Williams called the emails that have been made public "moronic" and offensive, but he rejected any suggestion that race had driven any of the men's decisions as prosecutors.
Fina has received the brunt of scrutiny on the question of racism because he led a sting investigation that captured Philadelphia Democrats on tape accepting money or gifts from an undercover operative. All were black.
In 2013, Kane secretly shut down that probe without bringing charges. She said the sting may have been tarred by racial targeting, an allegation that has been vehemently rejected by Fina and Williams.
Williams resurrected the sting case, which has so far led four of the six defendants to plead guilty to conflict-of-interest charges. Two others, both state representatives, are fighting the case.
One, Rep. Louise Bishop (D., Philadelphia), is seeking to have the case dismissed based on Kane's accusation that the investigation was racially motivated.
A hearing on that matter is scheduled for this week.
In the interview, Williams said that Fina had obtained convictions of dozens of public officials for corruption and also successfully prosecuted Jerry Sandusky, the serial sexual molester.
"People want to get on him about racism, but 99 percent of the people he prosecuted in Harrisburg in Bonusgate, Computergate, whatever-gate, or with Sandusky have been white men," Williams said of Fina.
Williams announced in early September that he was sending the three prosecutors to sensitivity training, a decision that was swiftly denounced.
Philadelphia Councilwoman Cindy Bass said the lack of strong discipline by Williams drove much of the public outrage and led her and other women on City Council to take such a vocal stance.
"It feels like a slap in the face," she said. "It feels like there is no justice."
Williams said his disciplinary treatment of the three did not differ from what Kane did with her staff. The attorney general, he said, has kept more than a half-dozen prosecutors on her payroll who had exchanged troubling emails.
Kane has said that more than 60 members of her current staff took part in the porn exchanges, including at least seven prosecutors. But she said she fired only those who continued to email porn after being ordered to stop.
Earlier this month, Kane named a special prosecutor to sort through what she said were thousands of pornographic and other offensive messages traded among scores of prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and others in the legal profession.
She said the special prosecutor would try to determine whether any crimes were committed during the exchange.
Both Bass and Ahmad said that while they know the scandal involved many people, their calls for change would remain focused on those working in the criminal justice system in Philadelphia.