Worried that Seth Williams is broke, lawyer wants off his case

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The lawyer representing Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams wants off the case less than a week after the federal prosecutors charged the city’s cash-strapped top prosecutor on bribery and corruption counts.

Citing concerns over Williams’ ability to pay his legal bills and questions of legal ethics, defense lawyer Michael Diamondstein sought permission late last week from the federal judge overseeing Williams’ case to step aside.

But so far, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond has resisted, calling Diamondstein’s worries “frivolous” and ordering him – at least for the moment – to stay by Williams’ side. A federal magistrate judge is scheduled to revisit the issue at a court hearing Tuesday.

“Putting aside the issue of whether Mr. Williams can afford to be represented by private counsel,” the defense lawyer wrote in a letter to the judge, “the nature of my criminal practice would make continuing on as counsel for the sitting District Attorney too challenging.”

In a more recent filing, Diamondstein put it more bluntly: “Mr. Williams does not have the financial ability to retain [me] for trial in this matter.”

The question of whether Williams, 50, can now afford to hire another lawyer is only the latest problem to stem from his well-documented financial woes – the same struggle that now lies at the heart of the case against him.

In the past, the district attorney has blamed his inability to pay his own bills — despite his $175,572 annual salary — on alimony payments stemming from a 2011 divorce and private school tuition for his daughters.

And earlier this year, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics assessed a $62,000 fine – the largest in its 10-year history – for Williams’ failure to report for years more than $175,000 in gifts he accepted from wealthy benefactors including a new roof, luxury vacations, Eagles sidelines passes and the use of a defense attorney’s home in Florida.

Federal authorities zeroed in on that largesse in building the 23-count indictment unsealed last week.

Prosecutors say Williams repeatedly sold his influence to two Philadelphia area businessmen willing to bankroll his luxury tastes. In a separate allegation, investigators have accused the district attorney raiding funds meant to pay for his mother’s nursing home care so that he could pay his own mortgage and electricity bills.

Williams has denied any wrongdoing and resisted calls from Mayor Kenney and others to resign. Still, he has avoided public appearances and his office in the days since his indictment.

A small crowd of demonstrators led by Black Lives Matter organizer Asa Khalif milled about in the rain Monday morning outside of the District Attorney’s Office shouting through a bullhorn for Williams to step down. It was not clear whether he was in the office at the time.

Still, Diamondstein, despite his efforts to leave the case, reiterated his support for the embattled prosecutor.

“We strongly believe in Mr. Williams’ innocence and wish him the best of luck moving forward,” he said.

In recent court filings, Diamondstein explained that he took over Williams’ legal defense from John J. Pease III, the lawyer the city hired to represent the district attorney throughout the FBI and IRS investigation.

As per its policy, the city withdrew funding for Williams’ legal defense once he was charged. Pease left with it, collecting more than $42,313 for the work he had done so far, according to the city law department

Diamondstein stepped in to fill the role last week, but made clear from the start that he intended to do so only temporarily. In court filings last week, he pondered whether it was appropriate to take on a high-profile client like Williams, whose office is actively engaged in trying to convict the 50 to 60 other criminal defendants he represents.

But at least one lawyer saw no conflict in that arrangement. Attorney Sam Stretton has devoted much of his practice to defending lawyers and judges before various ethics board including Williams in his recent run-ins with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics and the State Ethics Commission but also represents clients facing prosecution from the District Attorney’s Office.

When he took Williams on as a client, he said, he provided a list of all his criminal clients to the District Attorney’s Office with instructions that Williams was not to have any direct involvement in their cases. Each time one of those clients appears in court, they are advised that Stretton also represents the district attorney in separate legal matters and asked to affirm that they do not object.

“It’s not a big deal,” Stretton said. “It’s not much of a conflict at all.”

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