Seth Williams Finally Answered Our Questions About Porngate

Philly D.A. on not firing Frank Fina, whether the decision could backfire in the courtroom, why he announced it the Friday before Labor Day, and what he really thinks of those “asinine” emails.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, center, accompanied by investigators Marc Costanzo, left, and Frank Fina, speaks during a news conference Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, center, accompanied by investigators Marc Costanzo, left, and Frank Fina, speaks during a news conference Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has been uncharacteristically media-shy over the last few weeks.

The eerie silence emanating from his office started on August 26th, when the state Supreme Court unsealed documents showing that three of Williams’ employees — Frank Fina, Patrick Blessington and Marc Costanzo — were part of an email chain when they worked in former Attorney General Tom Corbett’s office that swapped racist, misogynistic and pornographic messages.

Williams issued a statement afterward, saying that he would conduct a thorough review of the so-called “Porngate” emails. But he failed to answer several questions we had, like what he knew and when he knew it.

Then, on September 4th at 4:23 p.m., minutes before the beginning of Labor Day weekend, Williams finally issued the findings of his investigation. He said none of the emails “were created or originated by these three employees,” though all the employees in question had received the gross emails, and Fina had sent some. Williams also said there was “no evidence or suggestion of any inappropriate email behavior by these three employees during their time to date in my office.” For these and other reasons, Williams decided the three employees would not be fired, and would instead receive sensitivity training. Again, this news came in a prepared statement. There was no press conference.

Naturally, we had even more questions. But this time around, Williams agreed to answer them on Wednesday. Our interview with him below has been edited for clarity:

Philly Mag: Why did you decide to announce that you weren’t firing anyone over the Porngate emails on a Friday evening before a long weekend?

Williams: I finished up Friday morning … and I wanted to release it as soon as possible. If I had waited until Tuesday, then I’m sure people would have been mad. “Oh, he knew Friday.” So there was no right or wrong. All I could do is what I thought was best.

Philly Mag: Fine, but why didn’t you hold a press conference, where reporters could have asked questions, instead of just issuing a statement?

Williams: What I thought I would do was, as soon as possible, make the release. And then if there were people such as yourself who wanted to ask specific questions, I’d make myself available to answer questions.

Philly Mag: Could defendants use Porngate against you in the courtroom? For instance, could they question Fina’s ability to credibly prosecute a crime if it was based on race or involved rape?

Williams: So the best evidence we have is the record. To date, these prosecutors have successfully handled numerous cases involving sexual assault, potential issues of race. … I recognize that anybody at any time could file a motion in limine discussing any of these issues. My defense would be … we put all this evidence before a grand jury and they concluded that there was no racism in the [“sting” investigation, which Attorney General Kathleen Kane said was tainted by racism].

Philly Mag: You said that Costanzo and Blessington only received emails, whereas Fina sent some of them. So why did all three employees warrant the exact same discipline?

Williams: I tried to look at what the facts were. … And I can’t state strongly enough how stupid the emails were, right. But if you’re going to look at it and break it down, what we saw and what was released by the Supreme Court on the 26th were 20 emails. And you look at it, Frank Fina was more than just a recipient, yes. He forwarded seven of them, and of the seven that he forwarded, two of them he made comments on.

So I looked at all the different things, and I’m a father of three daughters. I wouldn’t want them to think that for them to get ahead in the workplace, they have to commit sex acts or any of that stupid shit. I don’t want anybody to think that. But, again, if you look at them, one of the emails that he forwarded and taking it into context — he’s also forwarded it to his wife — was an email about Sarah Palin having rainbow bikini pants, bottoms. That’s stupid. And he said, ‘I like rainbows.’ Okay, that’s idiotic, but does that rise to the level where I think this is a person who needs to be terminated for something they did somewhere else? I didn’t conclude that.

Philly Mag: But he also forwarded images that were much more racist and sexist in nature than that one.

Williams: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that these aren’t offensive. I’m not trying to say that they aren’t racist or misogynistic or ignorant or just outright asinine. How this could be done in the workplace, I don’t know. How it is that Attorney General Corbett allowed this, I don’t know. I don’t understand a workplace where people have as much time to be sending around all this stupid shit at work. I don’t.

But it comes back to the ultimate question: What do I do with employees that have been model employees here, great mentors to women, men, black people, white people, [who] haven’t done anything offensive here? For being a part of a culture that was ignorant there, that didn’t violate their policies there? [It’s] putting me in a terrible conundrum that I’d prefer not to be in. I’d rather not have you asking me these questions, or NOW being mad at me, or the Daily News having a picture of me from before I lost 55 pounds on the front page of the Daily News.

But the fact is, like with every case here, I have to be dispassionate, try to find out what the facts are, and do what I think in my gut is the right thing. … I spoke with CEOs and the D.A. of Manhattan, the D.A. of Fulton County, Georgia. I talked to a lot of people. No one said fire them. The only people who said fire them were politicos in Philly that thought that I needed to do this to protect my own future.

Philly Mag: Do you believe in your heart today, after looking at those emails, that Frank Fina isn’t a racist? [One of the emails sent by Fina included a photo of a white man who was carrying a bucket of fried chicken and getting into a confrontation with two black men. The caption read, “Bravery at its finest.”]

Williams: I got arrested protesting racism and homophobia and sexism. In college, I led a march of 102 miles to get our school to divest from South Africa. I have been the victim of racism. My father went to Penn State. He was one of 12 black men. He couldn’t live on campus because he was black. He couldn’t get his hair cut in State College. He was in a segregated Army. So I think I know a little bit about racism.

I assume white people are recovering racists. I am a recovering sexist and a recovering misogynist. I think that we all have growth to do and growth to make. I asked people, I talked to these people. I know Frank Fina and Pat Blessington and Marc Costanzo. Could they in the heart of their hearts have things I don’t know? Yeah, I don’t know what’s in the heart of everyone. But from what they demonstrated as employees here, from their work product, from people who go to lunch with them, from people reviewing their emails here, I can safely say that I think that they can operate and be productive and add to the District Attorney’s office here in Philadelphia as we try to mete out justice for everybody.

Philly Mag: I want to ask you about what you knew before the Supreme Court unsealed the Porngate documents.

Williams: So first things first, I didn’t know any of this before I hired them. Second, all I knew was what Kathleen Kane was intimating when she released all this stuff in March of 2014, and I was being told that she wanted me to shut down [the “sting”] investigation and she was going to hurt these guys or hurt my friends. It’s in a grand jury investigation from Montgomery County that she said she was going to make me pay, that Seth Williams has to pay. …

Philly Mag: But did you go to Frank Fina and the two other employees in question when you first learned about Porngate, and ask them directly if they were a part of this email chain?

Williams: Yeah, and so what I was told by them was that there’s all this stupid stuff that all of them sent around that was originated by [former Supreme Court justice] Seamus McCaffery, who had a friend that went to grade school with him that worked at the A.G.’s office who he would send it to, and he would then send it out and it would radiate from that guy. And that guy is still employed by the Attorney General’s office and has received raises. And he’s not just a person who was a recipient of CCs like Marc and Pat, but he was a sender of all this stuff. He’s still there.

Philly Mag: So after you were given that information, did you go any further than that? Did you ask to look at the emails in question? Did you see any of the emails?

Williams: Well, again, they don’t work there anymore. So they couldn’t just pull up old emails because they’re at the A.G.’s office. This is all stuff before they worked here, and they knew what the policies are here. They didn’t violate any of our policies here. But there’s only so much that I could do.

… Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said it’s hard to define pornography, but he knows it when he sees it, right? So it’s one thing for people to say it’s all this stupid stuff that was being sent around and it was just ignorant. It’s different to actually see stuff. So, no, I never could see it because it was on, if it still existed, on the server for the Attorney General’s office. And again, it’s important to recognize that these 20 [emails released by the state Supreme Court] represent just a fraction of all the emails that these people [sent], all their behavior, and I had to look at the totality of the circumstances.

Philly Mag: Did you go to the Attorney General’s office and ask to see the emails at that point? Could you have sought them under the state’s Right-to-Know law?

Williams: Those are all possibilities.

I thought that it would be best, considering that these were the 20 [emails] that were released, to make my decision based on those 20, and all of the facts that I’ve talked to you about in my review, the things we made public in our release of what we did. I’m very proud. We had a very thorough process here.

Philly Mag: How do you think your decision to not fire these employees will affect you politically?

Williams: I don’t know. That was the least of my thoughts. And some people would say that as a politician, that should be my first concern. My first concern was to see what was the right thing, what were all the facts. Some people say that as a politician, I should just be trying to protect myself. I should just fire people. … I think the more appropriate thing and the actual test of leadership was to try do the right thing, and get all the facts and then make the best decision based on all the facts as I found them. And that’s exactly what I did. And if people want to disagree with me, then that’s fine. Because there’s a lot of different ways to look at the same thing. … I think, in my mind, I exerted good leadership and good judgment in trying to come to a conclusion that was just and fair to everyone.

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