Desperately Seeking Seth

After a year of scandals, feuds and baffling decisions, the once-promising D.A. has even his friends wondering: What on earth is Seth Williams thinking?

Photograph by Nell Hoving

Photograph by Nell Hoving

Seth Williams is sitting on the porch of his home in Overbrook, taking a pull on a cigar and trying to find the right words to explain the bullshit that’s consumed his life for much of the past year.

It’s a warm, clear Saturday night in early June, and whatever plans he might have had were scuttled when his black Lab-mix puppy, Charlie, got sick. After he tended to the dog, his thoughts turned to a topic he can’t seem to escape these days, namely, why do so many people have an ax to grind with him?

This is not a conversation Seth’s advisers want him to be having with me, but it’s one we’ve had variations of in person and over the phone for several weeks. He’s gearing up to run for a third term as Philadelphia’s district attorney, a position many of his friends and supporters once thought would be a stepping stone to something bigger — mayor, Congressman, attorney general, take your pick.

He was the guy, after all, who pried open the windows to the D.A.’s office and let fresh air pour in after Lynne Abraham’s 19-year run as the city’s top prosecutor finally ended in 2010. He was considered a reformer who wanted to try new approaches to decades-old problems like paltry conviction rates and overcrowded prisons — issues that were at the heart of the city’s flawed criminal justice system.

But the fantasies about one day moving on to higher office have been shelved, and not just because of his suddenly dubious political prospects. Money’s a factor, too. The state attorney general gets paid just over $158,000 a year. “It would be a significant pay cut. I can barely pay my bills now,” he blurts out. “I have to pay alimony, child support, tuition, private school. I have five jobs — D.A., Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and I’m an adjunct at three law schools — all to just try to eke out an existence.”

He could just stick with the D.A.’s office. But given the past 12 months — time Williams has spent either dodging jabs from the media or trying to talk his way out of scandals — reelection is no longer a lock.

The headlines have been relentless and in some cases deeply concerning. The FBI has allegedly been poking around in his financial records, and whispers about his personal life have become public debate. The D.A.’s office itself has come under the microscope for employing prosecutors who were linked to an outrageous scandal — a.k.a. Porngate — that gained national attention, and for how it handled criminal investigations into some recognizable political and sports names in town.

A common theme links all these episodes: questions about Seth Williams’s judgment. If you’re in charge of an office that has the power to put people behind bars, the last thing you want is for your judgment to be a topic of debate. But people in politics, in law enforcement, even in his own office don’t just criticize the decisions he makes; they obsess over them. What the hell was Seth thinking? is the common refrain from friends and supporters who worry he’s somehow squandered the promise that wowed voters and the establishment all those years ago. They wonder if the mistakes he’s made now overshadow the good he’s done. The thing that really irks them, though, is that so much of this drama was avoidable. But then, most self-inflicted wounds are.

WILLIAMS IS NO stranger to battling through adversity. He was put up for adoption by his birth mother and moved through a pair of foster homes before a middle-class family from West Philly adopted him. He had a short-lived stint at West Point — chemistry and math were a struggle, but not as much as the racism he faced from other cadets. He moved over to Penn State, where he made a name for himself in the late 1980s leading a march to Harrisburg to protest the university’s involvement with companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government. Williams says he received death threats over that one.

Georgetown Law followed, which led to a job in Philadelphia’s district attorney’s office, where he caught the eye of prosecutor Tariq Karim El-Shabazz. “He appeared very sincere and tremendously articulate and charismatic,” says El-Shabazz, who’s now a defense attorney. “He was also an African-American man from Philadelphia, and that was a quality that was needed in the office in that time. He brought a certain realness and understanding to different situations.”

Williams’s ambition carried him to the Inspector General’s Office in 2005. When Abraham declined to run for another term in 2009, the path cleared for him to make a successful run for District Attorney.

I sat down with him for the first time about halfway through 2010, to discuss the changes he wanted to make to the D.A.’s office. He spoke optimistically about his desire to speed the pace of investigations into police-involved shootings and to share more information with the public. He was ahead of the curve there. Transparency might be the word of the day in this post-Ferguson era, but it sure as hell wasn’t under Abraham, who was often criticized for taking years to investigate police shootings — and then keeping the results quiet.

Williams had other ideas and worked with court leaders to accomplish a dramatic realignment: He moved the office and courts to a community-based structure, with prosecutors handling cases in specific geographic zones. He tripled the number of prosecutors assigned to the Charging Unit and started demanding more evidence from detectives before signing off on criminal charges — an attempt at correcting Abraham’s abysmal conviction rate.

Other reforms and initiatives followed: a marijuana possession program that gives out fines instead of jail time and saved the city millions, separate courts for veterans and prostitutes aimed at helping them rebuild lives, and more. For a city with a legacy of hard-ass criminal justice policies, these programs represented a sea change. It’s the kind of legacy a guy could use to write his own ticket politically. But then came the controversies, one after another.

His year-from-hell started with an Inquirer story last August. The FBI and IRS were reportedly probing his use of campaign funds for meals and dues at the Union League and a membership at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue. Recent history has shown it’s absolutely lethal for a top prosecutor to become the subject of an investigation; just look at Kathleen Kane, our indicted attorney general.

“I really can’t talk a whole lot about it, right, but as the D.A., all of my [campaign finance] documents are public information,” Williams says of the probe. He also suggests Kane is to blame for the investigation. Montgomery County officials found she once vowed in an email to make “Seth pay” when he questioned her decision not to prosecute a political corruption case that involved Philly pols. “I don’t want to speculate on what Kathleen Kane did or who she told to look at whatever, but I think it kind of goes without saying,” he says.

Kane’s rivalry with Williams is convoluted, as most people know by now. Frank Fina, the former state prosecutor who helped put away Jerry Sandusky and numerous crooked politicians, left the attorney general’s office soon after Kane was sworn in back in 2013. Williams hired Fina, thinking it would be a shot in the arm for his office.

But Kane and Fina were soon embroiled in a high-stakes war, allegedly leaking information about old cases to the media in a bid to embarrass each other. “I didn’t understand why Seth took on people from Kane’s administration in the first place,” says State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, whose friendship with Williams goes back decades. He wasn’t the only person inside or outside the D.A.’s office to question the hires.

Fina’s employment became front-page news late last summer when the state Supreme Court released hundreds of pages of pornographic, racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails, some sent or received by Fina while he worked for the state years ago. Porngate, that relentless kraken of Pennsylvania politics, was now at Williams’s door. Surprisingly, he didn’t throw the lock and batten down the hatches.

Calls for Fina and two other prosecutors to be fired slammed the office like a Category 5 hurricane. The outcry wasn’t just from activists and media outlets glomming onto a tawdry scandal; some of Williams’s longtime supporters, like City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, howled when he decided the men should undergo sensitivity training instead of being cut loose. Bass led a group of City Councilwomen who took the unusual step of banding together publicly to blast a fellow Philly Democrat, for employing men who had sent or received racist and sexist material. It felt like an intervention. This was not a good look for the D.A.’s office, especially in a city where minorities have always assumed the system was biased against them. “I certainly expected better of Seth, as someone who has known him for a long time and supported him,” Bass says. “This has all been so detrimental to the good things he has done.”

Bass recalls being assured by Williams’s chief of staff that the men would be fired, but they were still on staff when he appeared before City Council during budget hearings in May. Bass pressed him again. He sidestepped the issue playfully, telling her, “I still love ya.” Bass was apoplectic. “It felt like a little pat on the head, like, ‘Okay, sweetie, go away now,’” she says.

Williams still stands by his original position, which is that he couldn’t fire Fina for emails he’d sent while working for another agency. “There would’ve been lawsuits against the city, and then everyone would’ve been mad at me for that,” he says during one lengthy conversation. Besides, he did demote the three men; wasn’t that enough? “I haven’t done everything right as the district attorney,” he says. “In hindsight, I might have asked the city to pay for some law firm to do an internal investigation.” After months of handwringing, Fina quietly resigned in early May, but by then the political damage was done. Like so many Williams watchers, Bass has her own theory on why the D.A. was so stubborn: “I think to some degree, he wouldn’t get rid of them because it would’ve been a victory for Kane.”

Fina and Kane weren’t the only boldface names to star in recent Williams-centered dramas. He was criticized for asking the A.G.’s office to investigate an allegation that Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty slugged a non-union worker, and faced even more blowback when reports surfaced that one top ADA had been demoted, allegedly for urging him to file charges against Dougherty. Then he had to contend with the Inquirer digging into his personal life. The paper reported that a real estate investor — and past campaign contributor — said he’d been questioned by the FBI for agreeing to rent a home in Drexel Hill to Williams’s ex-wife for well below market value. You know, as a favor. “What happened to Philly’s reformer D.A.?” cried the headline to a follow-up editorial.

The matter infuriates him. “Most political advisers tell me not to even engage, but the reality is, it’s upsetting,” he says. He insists that his ex-wife worked out the rent herself, even though the landlord says otherwise. And here, too, he sees Kane’s footprints. Chris Brennan, the Inquirer reporter who wrote about the questionable campaign expenses and the rent drama, was also on the receiving end of investigative material that Kane allegedly leaked as part of her feud with Fina. (Disclosure: Brennan is a former longtime colleague of mine.)

“I know you’re thinking, ‘Seth is just a paranoid person making this shit up,’ but her own emails said she wanted to make me pay,” he says. “And the person who reported all of this is her unindicted co-conspirator, who she chose to use to try to embarrass Fina and me.” There’s little question Kane was obsessed with wounding anyone she perceived to be a political enemy. But to suggest that a clumsy political novice from Scranton could orchestrate two federal investigations into Philadelphia’s D.A. — while she also battled criminal charges and efforts to impeach her — seems, well, like a bit of a stretch.

Williams’s personal life intruded yet again in April, when a large crowd of reporters gathered at the D.A.’s office to hear him announce that he wouldn’t file criminal charges against ex-Eagles running back LeSean McCoy and his friends for getting into a booze-fueled brawl with some off-duty Philly cops at an Old City nightclub.

Williams had a national audience. Dressed in a navy suit, pin-striped shirt and solid blue tie, he carefully explained that none of the participants could get their stories straight, so getting a case to stand up in court would be impossible. This pissed off the Fraternal Order of Police, but Williams’s position seemed reasonable. The presser was about to wrap up when an Inquirer reporter — Brennan again — suddenly began peppering Williams with questions about tires that had been slashed on security cars in front of the D.A.’s house.

Some speculated that the slashings might have been the work of a scorned girlfriend, reigniting gossip about the D.A.’s love life. The other reporters in the room stopped packing their things for a moment. Williams muttered a few words and stormed off. The moment was ruined.

WILLIAMS’S HANDLERS were reluctant to let me interview him for this story, naturally worrying that it would stir up old controversies, or that he’d blurt out awkward bits of personal information, like that line about struggling to pay his bills despite earning $175,572 a year as D.A. They also must know that once he starts talking, he can’t resist riffing on any number of topics. He compartmentalizes the criticism he faces. Some of it, he believes, is purely the handiwork of Kane. Some could be simple political theater — much ado about nothing. He seems to take comfort in that explanation, but it’s abundantly clear that friends like Bass and Tony Williams were hassling him over the Fina-Porngate issue out of genuine concern for his well-being, like Good Samaritans trying to flag down a driver as he speeds toward a cliff.

I spoke to a number of former prosecutors and staffers who expressed a personal fondness for Williams — people who sound like they would have taken a bullet for the guy at one time. They feel he hasn’t learned any lessons and mostly brings the negative attention on himself. He’s not a power-mad pol trying to build an empire; he just can’t seem to help shooting himself in the foot. As Williams sees it, all the politicians and newspaper reporters and ex-prosecutors have an agenda, which is to ignore the good work he’s done and crucify him for everything else. “You can’t win,” he sighs.

The big question is whether any of this will prevent him from winning another term. There are rumors about potential candidates who are kicking the tires on running against him, including former Common Pleas Court judge Renee Cardwell Hughes and Rich Negrin, the former city managing director. “It’s a critical, critical position, and the integrity of the office can never be called into question,” Hughes offers.

It’s still extraordinarily difficult to unseat a Democratic incumbent in this city, but one crucial past Seth Williams supporter is already jumping off the wagon: the FOP. The union’s president, John McNesby, says his members will likely back another candidate or sit out the election altogether.

“When you’re a public figure, you have people looking at you from all over the place. They expect you to lead. You can’t indulge in some of the things that he does, because it’s a recipe for disaster,” McNesby says. “He’s a nice guy, but you just don’t know what he’s thinking half the time.”

Published as “Desperately Seeking Seth” in the August issue of Philadelphia magazine.