In the month since Philadelphia hosted the Democratic National Convention, the City of Brotherly Love has exhibited world-class political skulduggery.
So far this summer, the FBI has raided the offices of a City Councilman, a jury 20 miles outside the city convicted the Attorney General (and my law school graduation speaker) of nine charges including two felony perjury counts, the City Controller accused the former mayor of illegally using a nonprofit as a personal slush fund, and the feds also raided the home of “Johnny Doc” who just happens to be the brother of a state supreme court justice and head of the most powerful union in Philly.
If there were gold medals in political corruption, Philly would put Michael Phelps to shame.
But that’s not all.
In the midst of criminal convictions and FBI raids, Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Seth Williams, who is also under federal investigation (I mean, who isn’t at this point?), felt the need to suddenly disclose more than $160,000 in previously unreported gifts.
These gifts include free vacations to a criminal defense attorney’s Florida home, pre-paid Visa gift cards from another criminal defense attorney turned judge, $45,000 in free roof repairs, and two all-access sideline passes to Eagles games since 2011.
There is no question that Williams needed to disclose these gifts per city and state law. His own attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Williams’ failure to previously report five years of gifts was “a terrible mistake” and that “there’s no good answer” for why he did not do so earlier.
Now, Williams could face up to a $1,000 fine per undisclosed gift by the city and fines up to his annual salary of $175,000 by the state.
Yet, it is those Eagles sideline passes that should raise as many eyebrows as the obvious conflicts of interest presented by defense attorneys giving the DA money and vacations.
Even in disclosing the sideline passes five years too late, Williams laughably claimed that they had “no face value.” That’s funny because it certainly seems that certain football players have received benefits from the DA’s cozy relationship with the team.
Just last month, the DA declined to bring charges against Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor after he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Philadelphia strip club.
Then, earlier this year in April, Williams announced that his office would not press charges against former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy related to a bar brawl with off-duty police officers.
The DA’s decision in the McCoy case was even more puzzling as reports circulated that the DA’s office was actively “pushing back” against recommendations by the police department to issue an arrest warrant for McCoy. The lack of charges drew a swift rebuke from the police with a comment that now looks much different in light of the DA’s sideline pass disclosures.
John J. McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, blasted Williams, saying in a statement that “a vicious assault on off-duty police officers by a rich athlete and his friends goes completely unpunished.
“Serious and permanent injuries were inflicted on these officers as a result of a brutal assault captured on film, but a season-ticket-hunting District Attorney refuses to do his sworn job and prosecute the attackers.”
It turns out that McNesby was not far off. Only instead of seeking season tickets, Williams already had all-access sideline passes in his pocket.
The problem here is not that Williams accepted the passes, but rather that he both failed to disclose them and that he claimed they had no monetary value when upper level seats go for more than $100 a piece.
The benefit to Williams is unquestionable. Whether the Eagles benefited in return is actually less important.
What matters is the mere appearance of impropriety and impartiality that our elected officials are supposed to avoid.
In fairness to Williams, state law allows public officials to keep gifts from friends or family secret although there is no special exception for professional sports teams.
“This [friends and family] exception should be completely eliminated to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Otherwise, public confidence in the government and fair administration of the justice system will be unduly compromised,” said Gaetan Alfano, who leads the Philadelphia Bar Association. “The public could question whether such gifts, especially of this magnitude, were motivated by considerations of political power as opposed to true friendship.”
It is possible that Williams treated McCoy and Agholor just like any other criminal suspect. But can we be sure? Likewise, how do we know defendants represented by attorneys who gave Williams gift cards and vacation homes did not receive more preferential treatment than someone represented by a public defender not greasing the DA’s wheels?
We don’t. And there’s the rub.
As attorneys, particularly elected officials in the criminal justice system, maintaining a fair legal process that citizens can actually trust should be goal No. 1 — something Williams seems to have forgotten.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.