Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Gifts to Seth Williams create conflicts

Among dozens of gifts Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams belatedly reported this week are four family vacations at the Key West, Fla., beach house of longtime Philadelphia lawyer Richard Hoy.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams reported $160,050 in newly disclosed gifts.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams reported $160,050 in newly disclosed gifts.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / File Photograph

Among dozens of gifts Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams belatedly reported this week are four family vacations at the Key West, Fla., beach house of longtime Philadelphia lawyer Richard Hoy.

During the same period, Hoy represented scores of defendants facing charges brought by Williams' office, ranging from DUIs to aggravated assault.

In an interview, Hoy said he frequently lets friends, many in Philadelphia's political class, use his vacation home.

"I never considered it a gift," he said. "I considered it a friend using my home. That's all."

Others see it as one of several red flags scattered among the $160,050 in newly disclosed gifts.

In addition to the holidays at Hoy's home, the district attorney received $800 in cash for Christmas from members of his security detail; $6,000 in tickets, trips, and gift cards from a defense attorney who later was elected judge with Williams' backing; and sideline passes from the Eagles, a team that has seen former and current players investigated by Williams' office.

"It's a total inability to understand the nature of conflicts of interest by a public official who has important responsibilities concerning conflicts of interest," said Gregory M. Harvey, a former chair of the city Ethics Board who now represents clients before the group.

Even the gifts of a more personal nature strike some as suspect.

"We all have friends who will buy you beer or take you out for your birthday. But I don't have any friends who are . . . doing my roof for free," said David Thornburgh, president of the government watchdog Committee of Seventy, referencing a $45,000 service disclosed by Williams. "You just have to wonder what's going on here. And why did it take you so long to disclose this?"

The gifts came to light in amended financial disclosure forms for 2010 to 2015 filed by Williams on Monday. The disclosures come a year after the Inquirer reported that the FBI and IRS were investigating Williams' personal and political finances.

Williams, who was first elected district attorney in 2009 and is paid $175,572 annually, declined to comment but issued a statement saying he released the reports recognizing "the need for greater transparency."

Mustafa Rashed, a spokesman for Williams' campaign, on Wednesday said all of the gifts were for work-related trips or from friends or family.

"There was a failure to disclose them and we've taken corrective measures, including going back five years to make sure everything was included," Rashed said in a statement. "This is above and beyond what is typically required for reporting."

Transparency is at the heart of the city law governing gifts to elected officials, which puts few limits on what may be received but stipulates that just about everything must be disclosed.

The law, which went into effect in 2014, bars elected officials from receiving cash gifts or items valued over $99, but only when the giver "is seeking official action" from or has a financial interest the official could affect.

Under city law, all gifts over $200 must be disclosed, except those from immediate family. The state law is similar but allows officials to not disclose gifts from friends.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia Bar Association chancellor Gaetan J. Alfano called for the state law to be amended to no longer allow that exception, saying the definition of friends "can be construed so broadly as to defeat the purpose of the ethics rules."

Listed among the new filings are gifts from people or organizations with either direct or occasional business with the District Attorney's Office.

That includes Hoy, who said he "got nothing" in return for Williams' visits to his five-bedroom, five-bath Florida home, trips that Williams valued at $1,000 each. (His airfare for each trip was donated by another friend, according to the filings.) Hoy questioned why Williams even listed the trips on his disclosures.

"I think he felt better putting everything down including shoelaces," he said, "because they look at you these days."

Williams also listed receiving $6,000 in gifts between 2010 and 2014 - including sports tickets, two trips to Atlantic City, and $1,500 in Visa gift cards - from Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio, a former criminal defense attorney who routinely argued cases against and negotiated plea deals with Williams' office.

DiClaudio, who has known Williams since high school, was elected judge in 2015 despite being rated "not recommended" by the Bar Association. U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the city Democratic Party, said at the time that the party backed DiClaudio because Williams had vouched for him.

Later, DiClaudio was admonished by the state Supreme Court for "serial misconduct" in his work as a defense attorney. Williams defended his friend in a statement as having "provided top-notch legal services" for many clients.

"I got nothing in return," DiClaudio said of his gifts to Williams. "It was completely out of the friendship we have enjoyed for three decades."

Since 2011, Williams has also received two complimentary all-access sideline passes from the Eagles.

In April, Williams announced that his office would not press charges against former Eagle LeSean McCoy for a bar brawl in Old City with off-duty police officers. Last month, Williams' office declined to bring charges against Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor for an alleged sexual assault of an exotic dancer at a South Philadelphia strip club.

A representative from the Eagles said that the passes are also offered to the mayor, fire commissioner, and police commissioner, and that Williams' second pass is routinely set aside for a member of his staff, including his security detail.

Two members of that detail appear directly in the financial reports.

In 2013 and 2014, Pierre Gomez and Dan Kearney, then assigned to the district attorney's Office Protection Unit, gave Williams $800 in "monetary holiday/Christmas presents." Gomez, who has since left Williams' detail for another assignment, also let his boss stay at his Jersey Shore house in 2013, lodging Williams valued at $200.

Working on the security detail for an elected official is considered a plum assignment in law enforcement.

Other gifts came from people Williams seems to know in a personal manner, such as $800 in free lawn care in each of six years from George Dixon, a neighbor. Dixon did not return a request for comment.

Williams' disclosure

Three of those listed as givers - William Weiss, Michael Palmieri, and Stacey Cummings - were mentioned by Williams in his 2014 inaugural address. He said he stood there "because of the support and hard work of" them and others. Here are details on those gifts:

Weiss, who co-owns the gay bar Woody's in Center City with his brother Michael, covered the airfare for the four trips Williams took to Hoy's Key West home, which Williams valued at $4,800. Weiss declined to comment when asked about other gifts Williams listed from him, including $1,500 in cash in 2015, a 2013 trip to Las Vegas valued at $2,000, and two trips, in 2012 and 2014, to Weiss' home in San Diego valued at $4,000.

Weiss and his brother, who also operate restaurants in the city, have contributed to Williams' campaigns. Michael Weiss was sentenced to probation and house arrest in 2010 after pleading guilty in federal court to hiding profits from another bar from the IRS.

Michael Palmieri, owner of Lynmar Builders in Westville, repaired the roof, windows, and insulation on Williams' home after a leak caused water damage. The repair was valued at $45,000. Palmieri, his wife, his daughter, and the couple's business partner, Robert Dunn, have contributed thousands of dollars to Williams' campaigns. Reached at the company's office Tuesday afternoon, Karen Palmieri, Mike Palmieri's wife, declined to comment.

Stacey Cummings, whom Williams identified as his girlfriend, gave him a Rolex watch valued at $6,500 as a birthday gift in 2012. Cummings and her father, Orlando, gave Williams two designer suits and five dress shirts valued at $1,100 as a birthday gift in 2014, according to the reports.

By belatedly reporting the gifts, Williams - by either design or happenstance - managed to shield many of them from voters when he ran for reelection in 2013.

"If you are disclosing yourself along the way, then the public can review it," said Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia election law expert. "And they can make decisions as to whether this public official is someone they want to see in office or not."

Williams is expected to seek reelection in 2017.


Staff writers Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman, Craig McCoy, Dylan Purcell, and Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.