“You’ve got me fucking all the women in the office.”
Those are close to the first words out of Seth Williams’s mouth when I meet him in June, after paying my 50 bucks—the lowest amount that would get me in the door—to wander around incognito at his “Seth and the City” fund-raiser, in a conference room atop Two Liberty Place.
For a little while I stayed lost among the D.A.’s political friends, the swank hors d’oeuvres, a deejay’s dance offerings, beautiful women. But I knew it wouldn’t take long for someone to tell Williams there was a reporter in his midst, and sure enough, I soon saw Philly’s bow-tied, slightly rotund district attorney staring at me and the political adviser I’d just been chatting with. So I went up to Williams and introduced myself. That’s when he lets loose: “You’ve got me fucking all the women … ”
The D.A. is apparently referring to a blog post that a staffer at this magazine wrote about a party planner Williams hired to the tune of $76,000 a year, and how paying that amount for something so frivolous when first-year assistant D.A.’s make all of 48-something had the office in an uproar. In fact, the blog said nothing about Seth Williams’s sexual activities on the 18th floor of the district attorney’s office, a stone’s throw from City Hall.
So I’m silent as Billy Miller, Williams’s political adviser, stares openmouthed at the D.A., as mesmerized as I am by what he’s just proclaimed. Williams, 45 years old, is much better-looking than he appears on TV or in photos, and he doesn’t really seem all that worked up: His skin, which he calls “butterscotch” (his biological mother was white, his biological father black), fairly glows in public, as if spotlighted; his eyebrows arc in near half circles around his large brown eyes. The careful mustache that looks pasted-on from a distance is real enough. And now the D.A., nursing a Jack Daniel’s, quickly recovers. It’s natural “that some people are angry,” since he had to make changes when he came on as D.A. in January 2010 and clean out the deadwood. It gets people—there are some 300 assistant district attorneys in the office—saying things. Then Seth Williams segues:
“Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “It’s like with Abraham Lincoln.” At the end of the Civil War, Williams explains, when it was time for Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox, Union general Ulysses S. Grant saluted Lee and his defeated troops. This is a somewhat grandiose way for Williams to make another point—which is that he has, in some fashion, honored his predecessor, Lynne Abraham. Although he then goes on to tell me how much he has accomplished in two and a half years fixing what was wrong under “the death-penalty D.A.,” as he calls Abraham, with her terribly low conviction rate.
Finally, after all this flows vigorously from Seth Williams, he stops, considers me for a moment, and wonders what I am doing there, what I am after.
I’m here because Williams, as district attorney and an oft-mentioned mayoral contender, is a very powerful guy. I’m also here because of the rumblings of current and former prosecutors about the way he’s running the D.A.’s office.
And when I reach out to them, over the next few weeks, they give me an earful, telling me that Williams’s leadership is so loose—or nonexistent—that the feel and function of the D.A.’s office is at risk.
“I’ve been waiting for this call,” one says. “I’m heartbroken about what has happened.”
This prosecutor—who works for Williams in a senior position—says Williams is a terrible boss: “His Achilles heel is that he needs to be liked. He’s very juvenile. He’s like a wayward two-year-old, with no thought of appearances.” The prosecutor alludes to whispers of inappropriate relationships between Williams and women who work in the office—although the D.A. has been separated from his wife for a couple of years. He claims that Williams allows friendships to affect his decisions as D.A.; that he’s hired political pals for dubious community outreach positions; that he’s so focused on his political future, he doesn’t really know what’s going on in the office. “The joke in the office is that Seth will either leave us in handcuffs or run for mayor,” says this prosecutor.
A former high-ranking assistant district attorney who retired on the heels of Williams coming in agrees to meet me in an out-of-the-way West Philly bar. “He’s an articulate black man. That’s what the machine wanted and what it got,” she says, sizing up the political atmosphere. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Other current and former prosecutors say similar things, offering a harsh indictment: that Seth Williams has upset pretty much everything Lynne Abraham built over two decades, damaging a place they grew to love. Which certainly does not bode well, they say, for the future of criminal prosecution in this city.
Yet as I probe deeper, something else becomes apparent. That maybe making big changes is not such a bad thing. That the way Lynne Abraham’s office went about prosecuting criminals in Philadelphia—one of the most violent big cities in America—wasn’t working. Not when defendants escape conviction on all charges in almost two-thirds of violent-crime cases. Or when just one in 10 charged in gun assaults is convicted of that charge. Or when two in 10 accused of armed robbery get convicted of armed robbery.
That’s what the Inquirer found, in a four-part series on the city’s judicial system published on the eve of Seth Williams taking over as D.A.
There’s a lot to be said for Abraham’s legendary toughness: Indeed, during her tenure, the rate of murder convictions in Philadelphia surpassed the national average. But even Abraham’s acolytes admit that by her last term, she was stuck in her ways, mailing it in. Change was long overdue.
Williams has come in with big ideas and a big presence, and both are a threat to the status quo. He has reorganized prosecution across the city from horizontal to vertical, which means his ADAs are assigned to one area of town instead of bouncing around all over. He has upgraded his charging unit with more-experienced prosecutors, so that lesser crimes are dealt with faster and charges are often negotiated downward, which is designed to decrease the backlog of cases—long a huge problem—and to focus prosecution on serious violent crime. He has created diversionary programs to get nonviolent offenders—especially drug abusers—help instead of punishing them.
Are these changes working? We don’t yet know, in large part because the criminal justice system has been such a mess for so long that change happens slowly.
But one thing is certain: The district attorney in any big city—especially one as besieged by violent crime and as beleaguered by problems of race and poverty as
Philadelphia—sets a standard. His tone and stance and personality send an important message. Not just on who he is, but on how criminal justice will be served.
And this is the point many prosecutors make: that the district attorney’s office should be different from other city government entities. That its standards of conduct should be “untouchable,” says the senior prosecutor who is heartbroken over the current regime. “We don’t want to fall like PHA or the school district, but if our house is not in order … Good ADAs are leaving because of money, but also in disgust.”