OPINION: Philly’s Tolerance for Corruption Is Why Seth Williams Hasn’t Resigned

Our city has an embarrassing penchant for waiting for political scandals to become four-alarm fires before speaking out. The current D.A.'s situation is no exception.

Seth Williams at a February 10, 2017, press conference. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Seth Williams at a February 10, 2017, press conference. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

The Philly reaction to political scandals usually rolls out like this:

1) Word of an investigation sparks chatter. Nobody really cares.

2) An indictment sparks concern. Some folks begin to actually care.

3) A conviction sparks outcry. Folks are absolutely done with the politician.

So, yes, I get it — District Attorney Seth Williams should resign after being indicted on 23 corruption-related counts last week. (Williams has pleaded not guilty on all charges and is free on bail.)

But it’s all too easy for Philadelphians now to demand that the city’s top prosecutor leave a position he’s arguably been screwing up for quite some time. In 2015, I made the case for why he represents what’s wrong with Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, after his failure to fire the prosecutors connected to Porngate. In 2016, I wrote how I hoped he wouldn’t seek reelection after it was revealed that he had accepted $160,000 in unreported gifts. But it took Williams being slapped with the largest ethics fine in city history in January before the Philadelphia Inquirer called for him to resign.

I doubt that Williams actually will resign anytime soon, because he might just need the money. In this he follows the playbook of a number of Democratic politicos who were too stubborn to step down amid serious legal troubles. After running a failed reelection bid while he was under indictment, former U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah finally resigned after being convicted on multiple counts of conspiracy in 2016. Later that year, former Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane finally resigned after being convicted on nine counts, including felony perjury. Both had initially pleaded not guilty and held on to their positions until their convictions made remaining impossible.

Only a conviction will force Williams to resign — so sit back and enjoy the drama you’ve tolerated for far too long, Philly. This city has had a hard time acknowledging that with high-stakes power vested in an elite, boring, and anti-competitive Democratic political machine, unchecked egos and corruption run amuck. And yet we don’t care until long after the feds come marching in. Despite Fattah’s federal indictment, the Philadelphia Tribune (the nation’s oldest black-owned newspaper) and the local Democratic Party still endorsed his reelection bid.

If we had been paying attention, Williams’s downfall could have been sensed years ago. It’s embarrassing that he had to take himself out of the current D.A. election before candidates became more vocal about his resigning.

So don’t be surprised when you don’t find me among the social media mob baying fake outrage and demanding that Williams step down immediately. He should, but he most likely won’t, and unless Philadelphians start being more proactive in holding our elected officials accountable before the feds do, don’t expect for anything to change within “Philly politics as usual.”