PHILADELPHIA — The city’s top prosecutor pleaded guilty Thursday to a corruption charge, resigned from office and was sent immediately to jail by a judge who said he couldn’t be trusted.
In a surprise development two weeks into his federal trial, District Attorney Seth Williams pleaded guilty to a single count of accepting a bribe from a businessman in exchange for legal favors.
“I’m very sorry,” Williams told the court, choking up as he acknowledged he would resign.
U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond said he was not inclined to trust Williams’ assurances about appearing for sentencing set for Oct. 24, so he ordered him jailed. He was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.
Diamond said he was “appalled” by the evidence he heard during the jury trial, and had concluded Williams “sold” his office.
Williams, 50, faces up to five years in prison under a plea deal struck during the middle of the night after a series of phone calls.
“He’s been humbled by the experience and he’s very sorry for his conduct,” said defense attorney Thomas Burke.
Williams, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, was the city’s first black district attorney. He spent years as an assistant prosecutor and became the city’s inspector general, tasked with rooting out corruption, before first winning office in 2009.
The two-term Democrat had named his chief of staff, Kathleen Martin, as acting district attorney after his indictment in March forced him to surrender his law license. She said Thursday that “Philadelphians should know that their District Attorney’s Office continues the pursuit of justice.”
Williams did not run for re-election in May. Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner won the Democratic nomination and, in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, is the heavy favorite in the fall election against Republican Beth Grossman.
The plea came after a trial featuring damaging testimony about a stream of money and gifts showered on him, from a lavish Caribbean vacation to cash bribes.
He was also accused of fraudulently using thousands of dollars from his campaign fund for personal expenses, misusing city vehicles and misappropriating money intended to fund his mother’s nursing home care.
He had been charged with 29 counts of bribery, extortion and fraud. Although 28 counts were dismissed, prosecutors said that Williams admitted he committed all the conduct.
The charge he pleaded guilty to stemmed from a relationship with a businessman who admitted providing Williams with a vacation in the Dominican Republic, a $3,000 sofa and thousands of dollars in cash payments. The former district attorney must forfeit nearly $65,000 gained through bribes and fraud as part of his plea deal.
“Today’s conviction is a great victory in the battle against corrupt conduct by public officials,” said William Fitzpatrick, New Jersey’s acting U.S. attorney, who oversaw the case after Justice Department officials in Philadelphia recused themselves because of their work over the years with Williams.
Williams is just the latest in a long run of Philadelphia politicians to be convicted of corruption. Just in the past 10 years, they have included former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, found guilty in 2016 in a racketeering scheme; the former speaker and four other members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; two members of the Pennsylvania Senate; and a Philadelphia city councilman.
Last year, in a sign he could be facing charges, Williams belatedly filed financial disclosure reports showing he had accepted about $175,000 in cash, gifts and trips from friends as he struggled to maintain his family’s lifestyle after a divorce. He was fined $62,000 by the city ethics board, its largest fine ever.