Meet Joe Khan, the Man Who Wants to Unseat D.A. Seth Williams

We spoke with him on Thursday to see what to expect.

Joe Khan announcing his intention to run against District Attorney Seth Williams in the May 2017 Democratic primary. Photo by Morgan Jenkins

Joe Khan announcing his intention to run against District Attorney Seth Williams in the May 2017 Democratic primary. Photo by Morgan Jenkins

On Thursday, former federal prosecutor Joe Khan announced that he will challenge District Attorney Seth Williams in May’s Democratic primary. Prior to his press conference, we spoke with Khan to see what we can expect from the contest.

Seth Williams has recently admitted that he accepted a bunch of gifts and did not report them. Among them: thousands of dollars in gifts from a defense attorney whose clients were being prosecuted by the D.A.’s office and $45,000 in work on his home. Forget the failing to report — it just seems wrong for someone in his position to accept such gifts, period. If you become the new D.A., would you accept gifts like these?
This really isn’t rocket science. As a prosecutor, if I was out with a defense attorney who I had a case with, I wouldn’t let them buy me a cup of coffee. It doesn’t need to be complicated.

The ethos of avoiding impropriety or the appearance of impropriety has always been drilled into the heads of prosecutors, so it’s shocking to hear that the D.A. himself was somehow unaware of the issues surrounding these requirements. The office needs the highest ethical standards. In order to be effective at prosecuting crime, you have to have the faith of the entire community. Otherwise, people won’t come forward as witnesses.

So you wouldn’t accept?
Let me answer it this way. Obviously, all of us with family and friends get gifts from time to time. But I’ve never received a gift worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, but maybe that speaks to who my friends are. It’s hard for me to imagine being in a position where a friend would offer to do major work on my house.

I’m a straight shooter. I don’t have a taste for fancy things. I’ve spent my career as a public servant. I take that term “public servant” very seriously. When you’re in public office, you’re a servant. You’re not there to get gifts.

Is there some policy that Williams set that you would reverse on day one in office?
I would substantially increase the level of resources being allocated to combatting sexual assault, human trafficking, and domestic violence. It’s deplorable how little support the attorneys in those types of cases are getting. There would be a long list of priorities, but that would be the top priority of my office. On day one.

While many aspects of city government have become much more transparent and committed to open data, the D.A.’s office under Seth Williams remains impenetrable and opaque. Would you be committed to establishing an open data initiative for certain aspects of the D.A.’s office?
It sounds to me like you know a lot more about roadblocks to that information than I do, and I would be happy to learn more about them. As a principle, transparency is important. What is this office doing with taxpayer dollars?

One thing I have heard complaints about is defense attorneys [not] getting discovery and paperwork and information in criminal cases from the DA’s offices. That’s not something I would abide. I don’t believe in prosecutors hiding the ball and railroading people. Whether that has or hasn’t happened here, it won’t happen under my watch. We will aggressively fight to protect the public while at the same time playing fair.

I know you used to work with Williams when you were a city prosecutor and that you respected him back then. Do you still respect him today?
I respect him as a person. I thought he had some good ideas. What I hear from all parts of the Criminal Justice Center — the defense attorneys, prosecutors, police — I’m not exactly sure how much of the story he is always telling. There are questions you’re not always getting answers to.

Do you expect a dirty fight?
I am not afraid of whatever is coming. I know how I conduct myself. I will be fearless and focused and fair, but I’m not going to win this campaign with false accusations or slander. But I am going to litigate this case before the people of Philadelphia. I’ve heard that he wants to have a discussion about his integrity and his record, and I’m prepared to do exactly that.