As disgraced Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who recently pled guilty to corruption charges for allegedly using his position in exchange for lavish gifts, sits in a federal prison cell without bail until he is sentenced in October, the court of public opinion had long rendered a conviction.
But perhaps one of the only public opinions that really mattered is that of former state Rep. Ronald Waters (D-191), who was once on the receiving end of Williams’ prosecutorial wrath for allegedly accepting cash from a confidential informant posing as a lobbyist in a 2010 sting operation manufactured by the state attorney general’s office under Tom Corbett, who was the state top prosecutor before being elected governor.
It was “really alarming,” Waters said in an exclusive interview with The Spirit, when he learned from news reports that Williams was initially hit with 29 counts of federal corruption charges, including spending more than $10,000 of campaign funds on facials, massages and expensive dinners. Williams was also accused of accepting more than $160,000 in other gifts that included new roofing on his house, lavish personal vacations and a luxury Jaguar for his girlfriend from a Philadelphia businessman in exchange for official favors.
“I was shocked when I first got the news,” said Waters, “because (fighting corruption) has been such an issue for him”
“He said (we) took (the gifts) because (we) wanted them, while he accepted gifts that were 10 times more in monetary value (ranging) from Rolex watches and trips,” Waters said.
As Philly’s former DA experiences life on the other end of the judicial spectrum as the defendant, the same position in which Williams pinned Waters two years ago, the former politico still active in the community said he feels vindicated.
“Absolutely, I feel vindicated. Not because of what happened to him, I wouldn’t want anybody to go through that,” Waters reflected, adding, “I follow the Christian value, ‘Do unto others that you would want done to you,’ but there has to be fairness in this process; it should be blind justice. If there were rules for us, it should be the same for him. For Williams, it is a learned lesson.”
In a maneuver of swift justice — the same swiftness that was promised by U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond, who oversaw the Williams trial — Waters, who was one of five Democratic state legislators charged, was sentenced to 23 months probation “on the spot” subsequent to pleading guilty, according to reports. He was also forced into early retirement from the state.
The other state lawmakers accused of allegedly violating the state’s ethic act were former state Rep. Harold James, who was sentenced to one year probation; former state rep. and legendary radio personality, Louise Williams Bishop, who allegedly accepted $1,500 and was forced to resign her seat.
Also caught up in corruption charges were former Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes, who received an expensive bracelet from Tiffany’s & Co., and former state Reps. Michelle Brownlee and Vanessa Lowery-Brown, who each received roughly $4,000. Brownlee pleaded guilty and later resigned. However, Lowery-Brown, the only one to retain her seat, has an ongoing case and is seeking to dismiss her charges, according to April 2017 reports.
At the time, Waters was the second highest-ranking African-American Democrat in state government as secretary of the Democratic Caucus. Only Dwight Evans, then chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, ranked higher. Evans is now a U.S. congressman.
It was reported that $8,750 was gifted to Waters, but the retired legislator said the monetary gift amount was “assigned” to him and each of his colleagues in court. He was charged with receiving the highest cash amount, but each increment paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars Williams allegedly openly received for favors.
The faux lobbyist who approached Waters and company “posed as a helpful friend.” Generous benefactors, solicited or otherwise, are generally not off-limits when lawmakers seek help to solve costly community problems.
The entire sting was “entrapment,” according to Waters, who said Corbett’s successor, former Attorney General Kathleen Kane, also had reservations about the action, mirrored the sentiments of the affected lawmakers and dismissed the findings of the Corbett-era case and refused to prosecute the state legislators.
“(Kane) felt as though it was a racially motivated case because African-Americans were only targeted,” Waters said. “She said she had never seen a case like this.”
Kane’s decision was met with criticism from Corbett-era prosecutors, one of whom found sympathy with then-District Attorney Seth Williams, who tenaciously vowed to score a conviction, Waters recalled.
Possibly succumbing to the attacks on her office, Kane reportedly relinquished the case files to the Philly DA in 2014. As a result of Williams’ determination, in 2015, Waters and some of his other colleagues were promptly handed down varying degrees of probation.
“A lot of people were damaged and hurt by this,” Waters said, adding, to his surprise, many of his constituents offered their support. “They told me to keep my head up high.”
Despite the charges and the permanently archived media reports from the ordeal, Waters said he is “very proud of the office” he held because “it was a good opportunity to make a difference.”
In the position he held for 16 years, Waters was staunchly against laws that required citizens to provide a government issued identification card to vote, calling it a violation of the 15th Amendment. He was against the privatization of state liquor stores. However, according to Waters, Williams accused him of actually supporting privatizing the stores and took credit for the battle against the voter ID laws.
“How can he do that?” Waters asked. “I would never support the expansion of liquor sales, especially in our community.”