On the rocks: Democratic D.A. Williams turns to GOP pols in Harrisburg

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. MATT ROURKE /AP
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. MATT ROURKE /AP
Posted: March 15, 2016

What does District Attorney Seth Williams have in common with: a Harrisburg bartender who is a whiz at making Prohibition-era cocktails, a crackerjack team of GOP politicos from the state capital, and a longtime loyalist to former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett?

The question is not a political joke, but a scenario that includes the key components to the embattled Democrat's new-and-improved campaign operation as he gears up to seek a third term next year.

On the last day of 2015, Williams shut down "Friends of Seth Williams," his long-established, Philadelphia-based political action committee, moving $8,272.91 to a new "Seth Williams Victory Committee," campaign finance records show.

To run the new PAC, Williams has enlisted a core group of seasoned state Republicans - with the exception of the mixologist, a registered Democrat who tends bar at a Harrisburg restaurant and who agreed to serve as the committee's chairman.

The move follows a report last year that a federal grand jury, as part of a joint investigation led by the FBI and the IRS, was scrutinizing the donations and spending connected with Friends of Seth Williams.

"I am working to professionalize my campaign organization," Williams said in a text message Sunday. "Allowing these professionals managing my campaign operation leaves me to focus all of my time on doing the important work in the District Attorney's office. My number one commitment is to making the city of Philadelphia a safer, better place to live, work and raise our families."

Mike Barley, who was executive director of the Pennsylvania GOP for two years before becoming Corbett's campaign manager, said Williams hired him last summer to help get his campaign finances in order.

"Taking over the old PAC, it was tough to know everything that was going on with it," said Barley, a longtime Corbett staffer. "We figured the best thing we could do was start a new PAC and then we could know that everything was being done according to the law."

Williams, first elected district attorney in 2009, has had rough sailing since winning a second term in 2013.

He angered many in the Democratic establishment for restarting a public corruption case against six local elected officials - all African Americans - that had been abandoned by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Five state legislators and a Traffic Court president judge had been caught on tape accepting cash or gifts, and Kane had raised questions about possible racial targeting in the sting.

Williams has said that the sting case was solid, pointing to guilty and no-contest pleas already won. The allegations of racial targeting were disavowed by Williams, by the lead agent in the case - who, like Williams, is black - and by A. Charles Peruto Jr., the defense lawyer for a sting target who pleaded no contest.

He infuriated more people, especially women and minorities, when he refused last fall to fire city prosecutors swept up in an email porn scandal during their time working for the Attorney General's Office. The former state prosecutors, whom Williams hired when Kane took office, had worked for Corbett when he was attorney general before being elected governor.

Williams said he made the prosecutors take sensitivity training and later reassigned them to lower-profile positions, although their salaries were unchanged.

Last week, when informed that Williams has a new PAC run by Republican operatives from Harrisburg, two Philadelphia Democratic leaders were mystified.

"Maybe Seth recognizes that he may not have the full support of the Democratic Party and that's probably why he selected all of these Republicans," said former City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, an influential ward leader in Mount Airy.

"I think he knows that he has really lost the support of a lot of Democrats in this city and probably had difficulty finding Democrats who might work for him. I think he's just piled up a lot of displeasure about his performance."

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, said he was unaware that Williams had put Republicans from Harrisburg in charge of his new PAC.

"Republicans?" said Brady. "I mean, PACs are PACs and they raise money. I can't imagine a [Williams] PAC being totally Republican. I just don't know nothing about it."

Brady said some city Democrats are unhappy with Williams and would like to mount a 2017 primary election challenge.

"I've heard that some people are talking to some people about running against him," Brady said last week. "But I have not talked to anybody."

Brady said he had not spoken to Williams about his political future, but believes that the district attorney intends to seek a third term. Asked if he would back a challenger to Williams, Brady said, "I think he's doing a good job. I don't think so."

Williams registered his new committee with the Pennsylvania Department of State on Feb 9. Listed as chairman is Robert Scot Wingenbach, who pours drinks at Bacco Pizzeria & Wine Bar (its website touts "Early 1900 Cocktails") just a short walk from the Capitol complex.

When asked about the Seth Williams Victory Committee, Wingenbach sounded befuddled. "I'm not a chairperson of anything," he said. "I have no affiliation with any of that."

Barley dismissed Wingenbach's denials as a simple case of jangled nerves. "He was just uncomfortable talking to the media," Barley said.

Indeed, Wingenbach later called to acknowledge that he is the PAC's chairman. "I didn't remember the whole thing to begin with," he said. "I'm not sure what they're doing. I just sort of took the spot."

Barley and Wingenbach said the bartender agreed to be chairman because he is friends with Douglas Rickards, who has worked off and on for the Republican State Committee since 2001 and worked on Corbett's first campaign for governor.

Rickards registered the Williams PAC and listed himself as treasurer Feb. 9. He stepped down after two weeks and was replaced by Lisa Tosheff, a Republican who runs a graphic design shop in Harrisburg.

Tosheff is listed in state records as the treasurer for 10 PACs, all Republican except Williams'. Barley said political ideology played no role in Rickards and Tosheff getting involved with the new Williams PAC.

"They're bookkeepers," Barley said. "This is bookkeeping."

Bookkeeping was a problem for the Friends of Seth Williams committee, with bank fee overdrafts and returned checks. Williams missed the Feb. 1 deadline to file his annual campaign finance report. The County Board of Elections fined him $80 in fees - which Williams paid last week - for filing four days late, records show.

If Williams seeks a third term - and if he faces a Democratic primary challenge - he'll need money. Right now, he doesn't appear to have much.

Williams started 2015 with $17,919 in the bank, raised $89,675 and spent all but $8,272 of it, according to campaign finance reports. The 2015 report shows that Williams continued to use campaign funds for high-end establishments: nearly $19,000 for dues and other expenses at the Union League of Philadelphia and nearly $3,000 for dues and other costs at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue.

Nearly half of the money - $51,770 - went to the PAC's executive director, Lisette Gonzalez.

Elliot Curson, a longtime Republican political strategist in Philadelphia, said that if Williams uses his war chest to dole out "street money" to Election Day workers to help Democrats win office, Democratic city leaders are not likely to care whether it was raised by a PAC run by Republicans.

Curson said state Republicans are good at raising money, they have different donor lists and they're well-organized. This gives Williams an opportunity to draw funding from new wells, Curson said.

"If they are based out of Harrisburg, that means they've got contacts all over the state," he said.

But Tasco scoffed at the idea that Williams might be trying to expand his base of support geographically.

"If he's running for district attorney," she said, "he needs to shore up his support here in Philadelphia."

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973

@ByChrisBrennan+

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