Philadelphia’s District Attorney Pleads Guilty

Posted On Friday, June 30, 2017
By: Douglas K. Rosenblum

What Happened?

In an unexpected turn of events, Philadelphia District Attorney, Rufus Seth Williams, entered a guilty plea on day 9 of his federal corruption trial. Judge Paul S. Diamond immediately convened a detention hearing and remanded Mr. Williams to the Federal Detention Center to await sentencing. As part of his plea, federal agents hand-delivered Mr. Williams’ resignation letter to Mayor Jim Kenney at 2:05 p.m., ending Williams’ promising prosecutorial career that started in 1992 fresh out of Georgetown Law.

The Rundown

R. Seth Williams’ guilty plea on June 29, 2017 was a surprise to local attorneys, the media, and even the staff of the District Attorney’s Office.  Acting District Attorney Kathleen Martin only learned of the plea by text from Mr. Williams a few hours prior to the plea. Mr. Williams took the oath of office as District Attorney on January 4, 2010. Seven years later, on March 21, 2017, a grand jury indicted Mr. Williams on 23 counts of bribery, extortion, and fraud. The government filed a superseding indictment adding six additional counts on May 9, 2017, and trial began on June 19, 2017.

Judge Paul Diamond, citing the public’s interest in a speedy trial, placed this matter on track for one of the shortest spans from indictment to trial that this District has ever seen. Perhaps by strategy in an attempt to call the government’s bluff, defense counsel did not seek any lengthy continuance of trial. Upon swearing of the jury to hear the case, Mr. Williams and his team were confronted with blistering testimony of unlawful activity. A local businessman, Mohammad N. Ali, testified to showering Williams with expensive gifts, including luxury travel.

On Thursday, June 29, 2017, at approximately 10:00 a.m., media began reporting that the Williams trial was behind schedule for the day. Mr. Williams was in a conference room off the courtroom, and his counsel and others close to him were shuttling back and forth into the room. Signed documents were exchanged among counsel. Shortly thereafter, a Twitter post revealed that Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Louis D. Lappen, entered the courtroom. The signal of a guilty plea was clear.

In another stunning turn of events, the plea included only one of the 29 counts of the superseding indictment. Charges that could have led to Mr. Williams spending the rest of his life in a federal prison had been whittled down to a single count with a maximum sentence of 5 years’ incarceration. Mr. Williams, who told the judge that he only has between $100 and $200 in his bank account, also faces a fine of $250,000. The Philadelphia City Controller is already seeking to forfeit Mr. Williams’ pension, in part to repay attorneys’ fees fronted by the city prior to Mr. Williams’ indictment. 

The Take-Home

Who won the trial? Is there a winner here? Certainly Mr. Williams saw the writing on the wall and limited his exposure to what some might consider a light sentence of no more than 5 years for someone who, as Judge Diamond put it, “sold his office.” Perhaps the government thought it wise to secure the resignation and conviction of a corrupt politician regardless of the length of sentence.

In another interesting turn, Mr. Williams admitted to all of the factual allegations in the superseding indictment. Therefore, although he is facing sentencing on only one count of violating 18 U.S.C. 1952(a)(3), there are now 63 pages of relevant conduct in the superseding indictment that Judge Diamond may consider when imposing sentence. 

Although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are not mandatory, Judge Diamond must consider them. There are many aspects of the offense that must be considered to derive the applicable offense level. There could be enhancements applied, and counsel will argue those to the judge once the presentence investigation is completed. The notice of forfeiture attached to the superseding indictment details $33,765.22 in bribes received and $31,112.70 of fraud proceeds, for a total of $64,878.22. Using this figure as the loss amount, Mr. Williams is facing at least a standard range sentence of 12 to 18 months, using the base offense level of 7 and adding 6 points for the loss amount. This does not take into account Mr. Williams’ role as District Attorney and other relevant factors that can increase the range. 

Given Judge Diamond’s comments during the detention hearing that Mr. Williams “sold his office” and that he “cannot be trusted,” it would come as a shock to the community if the sentence imposed was only a year or two of incarceration. The government agreed to withdraw 28 counts in negotiating this plea, but the judge can certainly use all of the facts connected to those 28 counts to sentence Mr. Williams to the maximum of 5 years’ incarceration.

What Happens Next?

Sentencing is scheduled for October 24, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. Stay tuned to for additional updates. U.S. v. Williams is docketed at 2:17-CR-00137 (E.D.Pa.).