The Charges Against District Attorney Seth Williams
When Lynne Abraham was district attorney of Philadelphia, there was a sign on the wall on the way to the elevators of the old office on Arch Street. Under the district attorney’s seal, it read:
AIN’T NO JUSTICE
This captured two things: that the system—judges, perps, endless cases—was aligned against the D.A.’s. And that it was up to them to fight the good fight. Them alone.
Abraham believed in a certain by-the-book way of going after justice. There is a story about her hiring Arnie Gordon as her initial first assistant in 1991. First assistants are important: The district attorney sets the office ethos, and the first assistant implements it. They went out for coffee, Lynne and Arnie, a longtime prosecutor. What sealed the deal for her was a small moment, when it was time to pay:
“We’ll each pay for our own coffee,” Arnie told her.
That said it—how they’d run the office. Tightly. With an old-school esprit. Until recently, female ADAs had to wear skirts to court. And stockings. By the book.
In contrast, a former ADA who worked under both Abraham and Williams cites a recent example in lost control and command: A high-ranking prosecutor, the ADA heard, got hit with a DUI while driving a city car; the decision came down from Williams to take city cars from all unit chiefs.
A hubbub ensued in the office. As the former prosecutor puts it, “The unit chiefs are out of their minds over this.” If Lynne and Arnie had done something similar, the chiefs wouldn’t have liked it, but there would never have been grumbling of any sort. Arnie would have summoned them to his office. Where he would have said:
“I’m taking your unit car.” Pause. “And I like your fucking shoes.”
Meaning: Now get out of my office.
The difference under Seth Williams, says the former ADA, “is the absence of adults.” There is a lot of time and energy wasted grumbling.
One adult who left in June of last year was Joe McGettigan, Williams’s initial hire as his first assistant. A smart hire, everyone said. McGettigan would be Arnie Redux. But Seth and Joe fought, especially over Williams’s hiring of political pals to do outreach work. Most prominent among them was a woman named Theresa Marley, who was given an office on the 18th floor with the other heavyweights and who tended to wander around barking orders—though she had no law degree and staffers were unclear what her job was. Co-workers say she was so disruptive and annoying that she was eventually moved out of the central office.
And then McGettigan himself was gone, ostensibly for health reasons. But he soon popped up in the state attorney general’s office, prosecuting Jerry Sandusky.
Theresa Marley still works for the D.A., doing community outreach. The rumors persist that there was only one reason Williams hired her—she was his girlfriend. Rumors that both Williams and Marley deny.
In the context of the demands on prosecutors, this sort of messiness is debilitating. First-year ADAs go to court every day having to wade through some 15 or 20 cases. On any Saturday, maybe three-quarters of these young lawyers are in the office, trying to catch up on work. They have to believe, fervently, in the job they’re doing, given that they start at less than 50 grand a year.
Of course, that belief must go all the way up the line. Lynne Abraham would go out 300 nights a year—giving speeches, preaching the gospel of balls-to-the-wall prosecution (though she always kept a firm hand on the office). If anything, Williams is more out and about, railing about the need to attack crime before it happens instead of throwing bad guys in jail and tossing the key away. But the question former and current prosecutors raise is exactly whom his energy is serving—the D.A.’s office, or Williams himself? Or maybe the question is a little simpler: How much does Seth Williams really care?