How Serious Was Seth Williams’s Review of Those Porny Emails?

A closer look at the D.A.'s justifications for not firing anyone over Porngate.

Just about two weeks ago, District Attorney Seth Williams announced he wouldn’t be firing the three prosecutors in his employ caught up in the Porngate email scandal. They will, instead, get sensitivity training. If you missed that news, well, that was probably the point. Williams announced his decision at 4:23 p.m., on the Friday before Labor Day weekend (making it this year’s No. 1 news dump, bar none).

Williams justified his call in a two-page statement that was clearly designed to show that he undertook a vigorous review, and found that the employees in question — Pat Blessington, Marc Costanzo and Frank Fina — were good colleagues who had “regret and remorse” for participating in e-mail chains that were “demeaning, unprofessional, and wrong.”

The emails are certainly demeaning, unprofessional and wrong. By the standards of the modern American workplace, that much is indisputable. The 20 that have been released so far are not only pornographic, they’re also spectacularly misogynistic and racist.

But what about Williams’ other conclusions? Let’s take a closer look at four aspects of the D.A.’s statement regarding Fina, Blessington and Costanzo.

1. Did the porny emails poison the office atmosphere or make the employees bad colleagues?

Williams’ office “questioned people they worked for, people they worked with, and people who worked for them, both in the District Attorney’s Office and in the Attorney General’s Office.” And what did Williams find? “We found that the derogatory elements appearing in the attorney general e-mail chains were not reflected in the work relationships of the three specific employees who have been the focus of the attorney general’s filings. On the contrary, the employers, employees, and colleagues with whom we spoke — and who included both women and blacks — described these employees as hard-working, dedicated prosecutors who were never disrespectful to them as females or minorities.”

No doubt Williams and his team did speak with past and present co-workers of Fina, Blessington and Costanzo. But we don’t know which employees, and Williams isn’t saying.

Why does that matter? Well, we know of at least one female employee in the Attorney General’s office who was disturbed enough by the office atmosphere to file a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The special agent, who was later identified by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review as Dianne M. Buckwash, complained of “a culture which discouraged the advancement of women who were not attorneys and the people who held the power were men.”

There’s more. Buckwash also complained that “the Criminal Law Division executives were also known to share racy pictures and make derogatory comments against women.” Buckwash’s complaint went on to list the employees she believes responsible for the alleged discrimination, but those names were redacted (the redacted complaint was released by the AG’s office in 2014). The AG paid $15,000 to settle the complaint but denied the agent had been discriminated against.

Did Williams interview Buckwash? Did he review her EEOC complaint? Did he look to see if any of his employees were among those redacted names?

Williams declined to answer those questions. His spokesman, Cameron Kline, replied in an email: “We stand by the scope and the detail of our review and the conversations we had with employers, employees and colleagues in and out of the AG’s office.” That’s it.

2. The search for more inappropriate emails.

In his statement, Williams says he would have fired the employees had they engaged in “inappropriate e-mail behavior” while serving in his office. But none was found. Williams writes in his statement: “We reviewed all e-mail communications still available from their time in my employment.” That qualifier — “still available” — made us wonder just how extensive the e-mail search was.

We asked Williams how far back he’d searched. We asked if his office had attempted to recover deleted emails. We asked if he checked for emails that had been saved off the email servers and onto city-owned hard drives. We asked if he checked city-owned mobile devices used by the employees in question.

He didn’t answer those questions either. Kline, Williams’ spokesman, said only: “Our review of all available email communications was thoroughly done on the city’s network.”

As a matter of policy, the City of Philadelphia only preserves emails for 50 days. Emails older than that are automatically deleted and, the city says, are unrecoverable. Nutter administration spokesman Mark McDonald says only emails marked by users to be archived or for legal hold are saved beyond that. “The DA’s office is in the city’s email system so our 50-day policy applies to them as well. Emails are gone for good after 50 days.”

In other words, Williams’ review covered just 50-days of email activity. It would be odd indeed, given the extreme publicity around this case, if the employees participated in any “inappropriate e-mail behavior” over that period.

3. A.G. Kathleen Kane didn’t fire everyone over Porngate, so why should Williams?

In general, the District Attorney oozes contempt for Kathleen Kane, Pennsylvania’s self-sabotaging wreck of an Attorney General. Kane is in big, big, trouble, of course, in significant part because of her own bad decisions (and her self-defeating fixation with Frank Fina).

Which makes it ironic, to say the least, that Williams cites Kane’s handling of Porngate discipline as a model, but that’s exactly what he does in this statement. “None of those hundreds of employees — who were colleagues of the three prosecutors now working in my office — were ever disciplined for improper e-mail activity during the years in question, either by the previous or by the present attorney general,” Williams writes.

There’s some exaggeration in William’s sentence, and an artful bit of language as well; the “during the years in question” bit. In fact, Kane did discipline about two dozen AG workers for sending and receiving pornographic e-mails in later years. And I don’t see any news reports suggesting that “hundreds” of AG workers were involved in the emails. More like dozens. But there’s no doubt that Kane did let some employees off easy.

That gives Williams some cover, I guess. Although it’s peculiar, to say the least, for Williams to cite a Kane management decision as precedent for his own call.

4. Consultations with other executives.

In his review, Williams touts his consultations with “prosecutors and other elected officials around the country, with Fortune 500 executives, and with leaders of non-profits and community groups.”

In a fascinating interview with Philly mag’s Holly Otterbein, Williams mentioned that among those he consulted were the Manhattan District Attorney and the Fulton County, Georgia D.A.

The Manhattan D.A., Cyrus R. Vance Jr., declined to comment when asked about his conversation with Williams. But the Fulton County D.A., Paul Howard, confirmed that he and Williams had talked about the employees and the emails.

“My general advice was to determine the current attitudes and work ethic of the employees in question. Secondly, I advised him to determine if those employees had engaged in similar behavior while employed with his office. I also suggested that he conduct personal interviews with the employees and their colleagues and review their employment records, after which he could make an informed decision regarding the current character of these individuals,” Fulton said in an email.

And what discipline did Fulton recommend? “After conducting an assessment to his satisfaction, I suggested that in lieu of termination, DA Williams lean toward suspension which would require some form of counseling related to the previous infractions,” Fulton told us.

You’ll recall that Fina, Blessington and Costanzo were not suspended.

And what about the emails? Did Williams share those with Howard? Nope.

We asked the D.A. to name some of the other leaders he spoke with when seeking advice about how to proceed. Not happening. Kline again: “The District Attorney mentioned in his statement, and in the interviews that he has been giving, that it’s not appropriate for him to go into detail about the private conversations he had during his review, so we don’t have anything further to share with you about that.”

This might not be over, however. At some point (we think, anyway) more of the pornographic emails will be released. Will Williams re-open his review, if it turns out those employees received or sent additional inappropriate emails? Here’s Kline, one last time: “I can’t comment on something that has not yet happened, so if additional emails are released we can talk about that at that time.”