Report: District Attorney Seth Williams Is Subject of Federal Investigation

The Inquirer says a grand jury is examining his campaign spending.


The Philadelphia Inquirer is reporting that District Attorney Seth Williams is being investigated by a federal grand jury. Citing unnamed sources, the Inquirer reports that the grand jury has subpoenaed Williams’ campaign finance records “to determine if he misspent funds on personal expenses.”

Chris Brennan writes:

Subpoenas were served as recently as two weeks ago to Friends of Seth Williams, his political action committee, said the source, who described the investigation as a joint effort of the FBI and IRS, with a grand jury impaneled at least two months ago.

Williams, who won office in 2009 and is serving his second term, is seen as one of the city’s elite political stars, and his name has been in the running as a potential candidate for U.S. Senate (he passed) and as a potential challenger to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Williams’ statewide profile has grown over the last year, largely owing to his public spat with Kane, who deep-sixed a corruption investigation that had caught-up six Philadelphia elected officials. Williams took those cases on, and so far he’s extracted four guilty pleas. The two remaining targets are still fighting the charges.

The Inquirer took a look at Williams’ campaign expenses, and highlighted a few transactions, including dues at the Sporting Club and more than $28,000 for meals, dues and a fundraiser at the Union League. You can take a look at Williams’ 2014 campaign finance report at the bottom of this post.

Typically, enforcement of campaign spending regulations is relatively lax, particularly in Pennsylvania. Under state law, any expense that meets the standard of “influencing the outcome of an election” is considered a permissible expense. And there are plenty of city officials who have chosen to interpret that standard very broadly. The campaign of Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, for instance, has used campaign funds to pay the water bills of constituents and help fund the Olympic training of Philadelphia athletes. It’s also not uncommon to see campaign funds used to purchase expensive dinners, pay for Ubers, clothing and other expenses that don’t appear to have an immediate connection to election day.

Obviously, even if the reported investigation goes nowhere, news of it could damage Williams’ political prospects, particularly in a statewide context.

It doesn’t help that the Inquirer’s report comes at a time when an array of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania officials have caught the attention of law enforcement. There is U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and Kane, of course. The mayors of Allentown and Reading are also reported to be the subjects of FBI investigations. Before that, there were the sting targets; former state treasure Rob McCord, who pleaded guilty to extortion; and Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery who was forced to resign from the Court in disgrace. All are Democrats.

Seth Williams 2014 Campaign Finance Report