Thursday, June 22, 2017

In The Federal Case Against Rufus, Where's The Beef?

By Ralph Cipriano

The feds trotted out one of their star cooperating witnesses today against Rufus Seth Williams.

Mohammad Ali is the Bucks County business man who was allegedly bribing the Philadelphia District Attorney with gifts that included a $205 Louis Vuitton tie, a $3,000  chocolate-colored sofa from Raymour and Flanagan, $4,000 vacations to Punta Cana, and a $7,000 "loan" that was never repaid.

But after the meek and deferential Ali got through telling his story, he sounded more like the victim of a shakedown. Anybody doing the math would have to wonder what Ali got in return for the money and gifts that he was showering Rufus with. To many courtroom observers, Ali came off like a chump who got played.

It all added up to a puzzling day in court. Rufus Seth Williams, the district attorney of Philadelphia, is not on trial for being a sleaze ball or shakedown artist. If he was, he'd be convicted already. But in a case that hinges on quid pro quos, the feds appear to still be searching for one.

Ali is a 40-year-old native of Jordan who became a U.S. citizen in 2008. He claims he's a proper law-abiding business man who made a fortune in prepaid phone cards. He drove a $200,000 Bentley, before he leased a Lamborghini for $3,000 a month. But the feds had him under surveillance for years because they suspected that Ali was a money launderer.

Ali had millions of dollars moving in and out of his accounts, as he was traveling in and out of the country. That's why the feds had him under surveillance every time he walked through an airport. But in the end, the feds clipped Ali on a tax rap for not paying $163,000 in back taxes. They also got him to plead guilty to bribing Seth Williams. But they never did nail him for money laundering.

On the witness stand, Ali was so soft-spoken he had to be told over and over again by the judge to speak up. During his testimony, Ali deferentially referred to the D.A. as "boss," "boss man," and "Mr. Seth." There was no doubt who was the alpha male in this "friendship."

Ali's story was that he met Williams at one of the D.A.'s campaign events in 2010.  Ali said he wanted to cozy up to Rufus because for a simple reason: "status." He wanted to be "friends with the D.A.," he said. He wanted his picture taken with Rufus.

So Ali donated $2,500 to Williams' political action committee. That got the D.A.'s attention. What was Ali trying to do, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vineet Gauri  asked again, to reiterate that talking point to the jury.

He was trying to "get close to him," Ali said about the D.A. Because he figured that "someone in power" might be useful if "you ever needed anything."

Ok, we got it. But Ali, by his own account, had several problems that he wanted Rufus Seth Williams to help him with. There were those annoying security searches at the airport, where the feds would detain Ali up for up to two hours. While they took his phone away for up to two weeks so they could search it.

As far as Ali was concerned, he was the victim of "racial profiling," he told the jury.

The immigration status of Ali's wife was another problem when she got turned down for citizenship. Ali was also angry about a former employee who stole $20,000 from him.

So Ali began showering Rufus with gifts like a Burberry watch, and trips to Punta Cana.

Why was he doing these things, the feds asked?

"Part of it was to be friendly," Ali testified. "Part of it was to get close to the D.A."

OK, we got it again.

In court, the judge could have rapped the knuckles of the prosecutors, like he often does with the defense lawyers, every time they get repetitive.

But Judge Paul S. Diamond is a staunch pro-prosecution judge. You can tell by his reaction to the objections from the defense, 90 percent of which were overruled by the judge.

The judge has admonished lead defense lawyer Thomas Burke for standing up when he makes an objection.

Today, when Burke got excited about cross-examining a homeland security officer, the judge told Burke to calm down, "don't fight with the witness" and "lower your voice."

But for the prosecutors, with Judge Diamond presiding, it's been clear sailing.

Why, the prosecutor asked, was Ali testifying against Rufus?

"To get a reduced sentence," Ali said. He's looking at up to eight years in jail.

So what did the D.A. do to help Ali? Here's where the federal case runs into some problems.

Williams, Ali said, made a phone call to the Bucks County D.A. to get after that former employee who stole $20,000.

Williams also arranged a meeting with Congressman Bob Brady's staff to help out Ali's wife with her citizenship problems.

Certainly Rufus could argue that these were just constituent services he would have done for anybody.

The prosecutor took pains to show how Ali went from being a complete stranger to Rufus in just eight months to becoming Rufus's new best friend while they took vacations together.

Ali and Rufus always traveled first-class, staying at 5 1/2 star resorts in Punta Cana.

Two royal ocean-front suites. Palm trees. Private beaches. Parasail rides. And Swedish massages for $75 a pop.

"Did you offer to pay," the prosecutor asked.

"Yes," Ali said.

Rufus was more than happy with the accommodations.

"I am not picky," he texted Ali.

"You are a good man Seth," Ali wrote back.

Did Williams ever offer to pay, the prosecutor asked.

"No," Ali said.

When it came to Ali's airport problem, "It was Seth who was trying to help me,"Ali testified.

That help, Ali told the jury, involved Williams making a call from the D.A.'s office to a high-ranking police official, Joseph Sullivan, to see if he could help Ali.

So when Ali made his next overseas trip, thanks to Seth Williams, a "police officer was there waiting for me," when Ali arrived at the Philadelphia airport.

But even with a police escort, Al was detained for a secondary screening. This time, however, it took only 10 minutes, instead of up to two hours.

Were you happy with that, the prosecutor asked.

"Of course," Ali replied.

Ali said he also asked Williams to help him with the drug case of a friend who was facing prison time.

"Boss man, sorry to bother you, remember a few months back, I asked you if you can help with a case for a friend of mine" who was a DJ at a night club, Ali texted Williams. "He has a court tomorrow and he is looking at 1.5-3 years in jail plus 6 years probation! Is there anything you can do for him?"

"I will look into it," Williams wrote Ali. Then the D.A. asked if Ali's DJ buddy had already pleaded guilty to the drug charges filed against him by the Philly D.A.'s office.

The answer was yes.

"If he pleaded guilty, and from the sentence it seems that there is a mandatory sentence," Williams texted Ali, "There is very little I can do the day before without it looking extremely suspicious . . . "

So Williams did nothing. While he continued to help himself to free gifts and free vacations and the free sofa.

So, the feds have established Rufus is a user who loves other people's money. But where's the quid pro quo?

The day in court ended with Ali still on the stand. Tomorrow, when court resumes at 9:30 a.m., Ali will face cross-examination.

Memo to Rufus's lawyer, Tom Burke:

Don't raise your voice. Don't get excited. And if the prosecutors object, don't expect many rulings to go your way.


  1. Ralph,

    I've also wondered why the Feds chose some of these counts for the reasons you put forth. Especially since I'm personally aware of some potentially more serious misconduct.

    I have several theories, but the main one is that they picked cases involving as few of the DAO staff as possible.

    That said, I think there's more beef here than you realize. Hypothetically, if you met a law enforcement agent or official that you did not know, there are two things that would NOT happen:

    1. They would not offer to "see what they could do."

    2. You would not give them a gift.

    And certainly, those two things would never happen contemporaneously. That is an implicit quid pro quo. Seeing what you can do as a prosecutor is an official act. It is not the same as a legislator seeing what they can do because a prosecutor (or cop) can do something unilaterally and the giver knew that.

    But the Bucks DA issue really gets me. Ali brought to Seth what is either a private civil matter or a criminal matter that should have been resolved in Bucks County.

    If it was a criminal matter it should have gone directly from Ali to a Bucks cop or the Bucks DA directly, so that the DA could evaluate Ali's credibility and use their discretion.

    If it was a civil matter, now we have the Bucks County DAO jumping into the middle of a private matter and potentially asking questions. The mere involvement of the Bucks DAO would be enough to pressure the other party. That is nothing less than an office for sale under color of official right, even if it goes through a few middlemen.

    Would you want to be in a civil litigation with Ali, when suddenly the Bucks County DA knocks on your door? Again, we're not talking about a state rep asking if he can broker a deal. We're talking about offices with nearly unlimited power to change lives. That's a lot of beef, don't you think?

    On a higher note, I commend your coverage. I checked the Inky's daily updates and I think they just got Tuesday posted, comments off of course. Thanks for being the best of the local press.

  2. Dear Anonymous:

    These are great points you raise. But if the distinctions between the official acts of a legislator vs. a prosecutor are lost on me, perhaps they are lost on the jury as well.

    Or maybe when Chief Sullivan takes the stand, the feds will drive home these points. Right now the situation looks murky, especially the Bucks County deal. Maybe we will get some clarity on that as well. I have been in court enough with Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Zauzmer to know he doesn't miss anything when it comes to details.

    The Inky is relentlessly pro-prosecution, even when they're prosecuting prosecutors, so you have to take their coverage with a grain of salt. Jeremy Roebuck, however, is an excellent reporter. Don't know why they're not allowing comments.

    1. I could talk all day about more serious allegations that Rufus should be on trial for.

      How about putting a witness on the stand that you know is not credible, as in the Billy Doe case where a fraudulent "victim" sent four innocent men to jail.

      Or cooking crime statistics so you don't prosecute perpetrators of domestic abuse because you might lose the case and lower your conviction rate at election time.

      Or frying some narcs in public for police misconduct when you don't have one shred of evidence against them.

      Or letting 800 drug dealers out of jail, most of whom pleaded guilty after being caught with large amounts of drugs, cash, guns, etc.

      Yes, there are a lot more serious allegations that Rufus should be on trial for.

      We can agree on that.

    2. Ralph did Mike Thompson in Dr o Brian's case get sentenced

  3. How about sitting on an indictment of a certain Inspector! Case against him is supposed to be way bigger than the poor innocent narcotics cops he went after!!!

  4. The defense in their opening statement went out of their way to say that the favors Seth was doing for his "friends" did not constitute official acts.

    So the feds will have to prove that they were.

  5. Williams made a big deal about taking over the bribery case that Attorney General Kane dropped but, at the least, he was taking lavish gifts himself that gave the appearance of impropriety.

    One would expect that a DA would want to avoid any appearance of pay to play, and Williams certainly did not do that.

    If Williams got a police officer to escort his friend Ali at the airport to help him avoid long delays, that sounds like it could be an official act. What did that police officer have to say? Was he on duty? Did he work under Williams?


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