DA Williams blasts predecessor’s legal push to boot him from office

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Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams fired back Tuesday at his predecessor’s legal push to remove him from office, arguing that neither she nor a state court had the authority to kick him out.

In a response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month, the city’s embattled top prosecutor accused former DA Lynne Abraham and her co-plaintiff, attorney Richard Sprague, of trying to circumvent the process spelled out by the state Constitution for removing elected officials.

What’s more, Williams lawyer said in court filings, Abraham and Sprague have failed to show that the district attorney’s decision to remain in his role while he fights federal bribery and corruption charges has caused them any harm.

“Other than having preceded him in the elected office of district attorney and having a generalized concern about the operation of the office and a desire to see that it functions in an efficient and effective way, [Abraham] can identify no basis for private standing,” Williams’ attorney Thomas Burke wrote.

Of Sprague, the lawyer added: “He provides little more than generalized boilerplate statements of concern arising out of the fact that his clients are impacted by routine decisions of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.”

Despite agreeing to a temporary suspension of his law license that will take effect May 13, Williams has vowed to remain in his post — and to continue collecting his $175,572 annual salary — as he fights to clear his name in federal court.

He has appointed his top deputy, Kathleen Martin, to handle day-to-day legal decisions about the hundreds of criminal cases moving through his office and has limited himself to an administrative role.

But Abraham and Sprague argued in a lawsuit filed earlier this month that without an active law license, Williams no longer met the requirements required by state law to remain in his job.

Their suit only complicated the fraught relationship between Abraham, who served as district attorney for 19 years, and Williams, a protégé who surprised her with a 2005 bid to unseat her. Williams lost that race, but won the post outright in an election four years later after Abraham decided not to seek another term.

In his response to Abraham’s lawsuit Tuesday, Williams contended that a state court was not the appropriate avenue to address Abraham’s and Sprague’s concerns.

The state Constitution requires all elected officials convicted of felony crimes to resign upon receiving their sentences. But state law also spells out an avenue whereby private citizens can file a complaint for removal against a sitting chief prosecutor by first taking complaints to the attorney general or the disciplinary board of the state Supreme Court.

Sprague and Abraham have done neither, Burke wrote.

The state Constitution also empowers the governor to oust elected officials for “reasonable cause” but only with the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. Although Gov. Wolf has called on Williams to resign, he has not indicated that he might take steps to force Williams out.

“It is clear that this court has no authority to remove a duly elected district attorney,” Burke wrote.

Williams has denied allegations that he repeatedly sold the influence of his office to two wealthy benefactors who plied him with gifts including luxury vacations, a used Jaguar convertible, and high-priced clothing like a $205 Louis Vuitton necktie and a Burberry watch.

A federal judge has scheduled his trial on charges of honest services fraud and other bribery-related counts for May 31.

Common Pleas Judge Abbe F. Fletman, who has been assigned to oversee the lawsuit from Abraham and Sprague, has not yet set a date for a hearing. 

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