Lawyers give starkly different views in federal case against Philly DA Seth Williams

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District Attorney Seth Williams arrives for a pretrial hearing at the U.S. Courthouse in Phila., Pa. on June 14, 2017. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )

The federal corruption trial of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams opened Tuesday with prosecution and defense lawyers presenting the jury with starkly different interpretations of the projected next four weeks of evidence against the city’s top law enforcement official.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Vineet Gauri portrayed Williams, 50, almost as an addict – a man so driven by a lifestyle exceeding his paycheck that he willingly solicited and accepted bribes and defrauded his election committee, the federal and city governments, and his mother to maintain it.

In his 60-minute opening statement to the U.S. District Court jury of 10 women and two men, before a Philadelphia courtroom packed to standing room, Gauri accused the two-term district attorney of “using public office for private gain.”

“Whenever Seth Williams had the chance to put his hand in someone else’s pocket and take money, he took it,” Gauri told the jury.

Defense attorney Thomas F. Burke conceded the factual underpinnings of the government’s case – the gifts and trips, use of political action committee money, the use of his mother’s nursing home payments, and private use of government vehicles – but maintained that none of it was illegal.

The gifts worth thousands of dollars from two wealthy businessmen were just that, Burke said, because no official action took place in exchange.

“There was no quid pro quo, no this for that,” Burke said, pointing to the three federal prosecutors. “They found the ‘this’ but not the ‘that.’”

Burke blamed what prosecutors alleged was the theft of $23,000 in funds meant for his ailing 80-year-old mother’s nursing home care to a “screwup” by nursing home administrators in filling out the necessary contracts and paperwork during Imelda Williams’ application.

As for Seth Williams’ personal use of vehicles funded by the city or through a federal drug-fighting program, Burke said the city policies were written to cover employees, not elected officials.

As district attorney, Burke added, Williams was entitled to round-the-clock protection and a government vehicle and driver.

Each of the criminal acts alleged by federal prosecutors was so weak, Burke told the jury, that the government combined them in one indictment to get it past the federal grand jury.

“The district attorney of Philadelphia made bad mistakes, he exercised poor judgment, and he made bad decisions,” Burke said. “He can’t keep his finances straight and he has a messy personal life. … But they will not be able to prove he committed any crimes.”

Williams sat listening to his lawyer’s opening, chin cradled in one hand, and nodding frequently in apparent agreement with Burke’s arguments. When Burke returned to the defense table, Williams shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder.

Prosecutors were expected to present their first witnesses later Tuesday afternoon.

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