Top prosecutor pleads not guilty in gifts-for-favors case

Seth Williams
FILE – In this Feb. 10, 2017, file photo, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia. A law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation says the FBI and IRS will announce corruption charges Tuesday, March 21, 2017, against Williams. The charges come after a lengthy investigation into $160,000 in gifts that Williams failed to report, including a new roof, a $2,700 couch and luxury vacations. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia’s top prosecutor pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and extortion charges on Wednesday as pressure mounted from the mayor and others for him to resign.

Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams appeared cool and calm as he entered his plea in a courtroom full of reporters. Williams admits he took more than $100,000 in luxury trips, gifts and cash while in office as he went through an expensive divorce. However, his lawyer vowed they would fight charges that he promised any legal breaks in return, a quid pro quo that would render the gifts bribes.

Mayor Jim Kenney called it “deeply shameful” that Williams “has been implicated in such a flagrant violation of the law.”

“At a time when our citizens’ trust in government is at an all-time low, it is disheartening to see yet another elected official give the public a reason not to trust us,” said Kenney, a fellow Democrat. “That this comes at the head of our justice system is even more troubling.”

Williams was released on $50,000 bond after a brief hearing. He was fingerprinted by the FBI and surrendered his passport. No trial date was set. He cannot leave eastern Pennsylvania without permission.

Williams, 50, is the city’s first black district attorney. He was adopted into a middle-class family as an infant and attended Georgetown Law School before launching his ambitious career.

He is accused of taking five-star Caribbean trips, free flights and $9,000 in cash from a businessman who sought help with a friend’s criminal case. The man, whose company sold prepaid phone cards, also sought his help bypassing enhanced airport security during frequent overseas trips, authorities said.

“I need the info … case number, agent anything so I can write a letter to the correct person of supervisory authority,” Williams texted the businessman, a foreign national born in the Middle East. “I want there to be a letter in your file from the D.A. of Philadelphia.”

Williams also is accused of helping a gift-giving bar owner and his brother seek a liquor license despite the brother’s criminal conviction and spending $20,000 meant for his mother’s nursing home care.

The prosecutor belatedly reported on ethics forms last year that he had accepted more than $160,000 in gifts or services from friends, including a new roof on his home, $21,000 in flights and a family stay in Key West, Florida, at the home of a city defense lawyer. The filings, which came after the FBI started investigating, cost him a record $62,000 in city fines. The federal investigation then spiraled, listing additional gifts that authorities said came with strings attached.

Williams, who makes $175,000 a year in the top job, said he tried to keep his daughters in private school and their family home after the divorce. At the same time, he frequented cigar bars and private city clubs, and his love life made headlines when a girlfriend vandalized his city car outside his home.

Defense lawyer Michael Diamondstein said pundits should avoid a rush to judgment. He did not say if Williams would resign.

“Simply because the government makes explosive allegations in a complaint doesn’t mean they are going to prove it in a court of law,” Diamondstein said after the arraignment, as Williams ducked into a waiting car.

Williams, announcing last month that he would not run for a third term, had said he regretted “mistakes in my personal life and in my personal financial life.”

Seven Democrats and a Republican are now running for his job.