After Porngate, Can the Philly D.A. Be Trusted to Prosecute Sex Crimes?

Seth Williams' handling of a recent sexual assault case raises a lot of questions. Again.


District Attorney Seth Williams and prosecutor Frank Fina were picutured at a press conference in 2014. | Photo by Matt Burke/AP

When District Attorney Seth Williams decided in September not to fire three prosecutors in his office ensnared in the “Porngate” scandal, he damaged his relationship with the public — quite possibly forever.

As practically every Philadelphian knows by now, Frank Fina, Patrick Blessington and Marc Costanzo exchanged emails while in the Attorney General’s office that gleefully dehumanized women and people of color. That, to put it mildly, raised serious questions about whether the three men could fairly prosecute crimes in which gender or race played a key role, particularly sex crimes. But questions about the credibility of the District Attorney’s office went far beyond those individuals. Williams repeatedly rationalized his staffers’ actions, first by refusing to discipline them and then by saying that none of the emails “were created or originated by these three employees,” as if receiving and forwarding heinous memes was no big deal as long as you didn’t whip them up on Photoshop yourself.

Fina had passed along a photo of a white man who was holding a bucket of fried chicken and being attacked by two black men. It was captioned, “Bravery at its finest.” Another email he forwarded showed a woman giving a man a blowjob, captioned, “DEVOTION: Making your boss happy is your only job.”

If Williams could rationalize that, what else could he rationalize about the good ol’ boys club inside his office?

That’s a question that doesn’t go away when the employees in question quit, as Fina did two months ago. Indeed, nearly one year after Williams announced that he wouldn’t fire the Porngate prosecutors, Philadelphians are being forced to ask these questions all over again.

Last month, Philadelphia Jobs With Justice director Gwen Snyder told police that she was sexually assaulted during the Democratic National Convention. She said a fellow delegate for Bernie Sanders hugged her at a DNC hotel bar and then “aggressively” licked her breast without her consent.

After investigating the incident, the District Attorney’s office announced last week that it would not file charges. Cameron Kline, a spokesman for Williams, wouldn’t say why.

Snyder, however, said an assistant D.A. had told her that one of the main reasons the office wasn’t prosecuting was because her alleged attacker was drunk at the time of the incident. “I was told that [the] office believed that because he was drunk, prosecutors might not be able to ‘prove beyond a reasonable doubt’ to a jury that ‘he knew [I] hadn’t given consent,'” she told Philadelphia magazine.

Stories in Jezebel, the Inquirer, the Daily News and City & State soon followed. Snyder created an online petition, calling for Williams to prosecute. The Philadelphia National Organization for Women also got involved, urging Williams to file charges and saying that Snyder was “yet another casualty of the D.A.’s cavalier attitude to protecting women in Philadelphia.”

It seems unlikely that NOW would have reacted in the same way had the District Attorney fired Fina, Blessington and Costanzo last fall. But Williams effectively dismissed the Porngate emails; for many, it’s not hard to believe that his office might also dismiss an alleged sexual assault.

After receiving numerous calls from reporters, the District Attorney’s office announced last week that it had changed its mind and that prosecutors would “do some additional investigation” of Snyder’s case. That raised even more questions: Snyder is a skilled labor activist who knows how to draw attention to a cause. Is that what it takes now for a woman to have her sexual assault taken seriously in Philadelphia? Are we at the point where victims have to create online petitions to get justice? What happens to those who aren’t as organized or educated as Snyder?

Days after initially being asked to comment on Snyder’s claim that the D.A.’s office had declined to press charges partly because her alleged attacker was drunk, Kline issued a rebuttal on Friday. “Let me be very clear,” he told the Inquirer. “We would never, ever say we’re not going to prosecute someone for an assault or an attack or a related crime because someone is intoxicated. They had a discussion about standards, about proof, and a discussion about how that will happen in court, and one’s level of alcoholic intake is connected to that.”

As usual, that only led to more questions: Why did Kline wait so long to say that?

Back in 2015, when the D.A. revealed that he wouldn’t so much as suspend Fina and co. for their actions, Williams justified his decision by saying that he spoke to lots and lots of people before he made his choice. His office interviewed the three employees in question, as well as “people they worked for” and “people they worked with.” Williams said he also personally talked to “prosecutors and other elected officials around the country,” “Fortune 500 executives,” and “leaders of non-profits and community groups.”

Did Williams speak to a victim of sexual assault? Did he ask if they might question whether an office that can’t be trusted to fire its prosecutors for trading misogynistic and racist emails can be trusted to prosecute sex crimes? If he did, he didn’t say so.

As she awaits a decision on her case, Snyder tells me she doesn’t have much faith in Williams. “I have a very hard time believing that the D.A. really cares about women or women’s issues,” she says.

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