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Judge wants DA Seth Williams' trial to start as soon as next month

U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond chided government lawyers for indicting the city’s top prosecutor before they had fully completed their investigation. He also expressed concern over Williams’ decision to remain in office, despite the suspension of his law license while he is fighting the charges against him.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams could be facing a federal jury as soon as next month if the judge overseeing his bribery and corruption case has his way.

In a sternly worded order Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond set a May 31 trial date over objections from government lawyers, who had asked for more time to prepare their case.

He chided prosecutors for charging Williams before they had fully completed their investigation and also expressed concern over the district attorney's decision to remain in office despite the suspension of his law license while he remains under indictment.

"I am hard-pressed to think of a case where the public's right to a speedy trial is more pressing than it is here," the judge wrote. "The largest prosecutor's office in the commonwealth is being run by someone who is not licensed to practice law and is himself charged with 23 federal crimes."

Should the trial proceed along Diamond's rapid timeline, it will set an extraordinary pace.

Federal law requires criminal trials to commence within 70 days of the filing of an indictment, but judges routinely grant waivers to those deadlines — especially in complex, document-intensive public corruption cases.

Other Philadelphia elected officials facing recent high-profile corruption probes had several months to prepare to face their juries.

Nearly a year passed between the indictments and trials of both State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. Fumo's successor in office, Larry Farnese, had nine months to marshal the defense that led to his acquittal in a federal fraud case this year.

Diamond, in his order, said he saw the 50-year-old prosecutor's case differently.

Federal authorities have accused Williams in three schemes — two involving selling the influence of his office to wealthy backers that showered him with luxury gifts and a third involving allegations that he misspent $20,000 set aside for his mother's nursing home care.

"This does not appear to be an especially complex case," Diamond wrote, adding later: "Having brought the charges that will, until they are resolved, have an obvious and possibly calamitous effect on the city's criminal justice system as well as the city itself, the government is obligated to go to trial upon the indictment's return."

In court filings last week, prosecutors said they had not yet finished sorting though the mountains of search warrant evidence, 300,000 emails and 80,000 documents that agents had collected during their two-year investigation – material that they are required to hand over to the Williams defense before trial.

They have already delivered a hard drive packed with terabytes of data, including 17 grand jury transcripts, 61 agent reports, audio from three conversations recorded by government cooperators, and images caught by a camera investigators installed outside of Williams' Overbook home.

Williams' lawyer, Thomas Burke, told the court at the time that he could not say whether he would be ready for trial by next month because he had not yet had a chance to begin reviewing that material.

In his order Tuesday, Diamond left open the possibility that he might still grant a delay — but only at the request of Williams' lawyer to ensure he had time to prepare an adequate defense. He ordered prosecutors to hand over a list of witnesses and exhibits by April 21.