Philadelphia DA assembles team to investigate public corruption

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PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has quietly assembled an elite team of veteran prosecutors to investigate public corruption.

To staff the effort, Mr. Williams has hired prosecutors from the state attorney general's office who brought successful cases against senior political figures in both parties, including former House Speaker John M. Perzel.

Earlier this month, Mr. Williams received court approval to create a new investigative grand jury, which allows prosecutors to subpoena documents and compel testimony.

Mr. Williams, in an interview, said he did not have "specific targets in mind." But he said he had no doubt targets existed.

"Philadelphians think we turn a blind eye to political corruption in Philadelphia. I wanted them to know that we don't -- and that we will not abdicate our responsibility of prosecuting the appropriate cases in Philadelphia," Mr. Williams said.

"I appreciate the U.S. attorney has done a lot of them in the past, as they should," he said, referring to federal prosecutors. "But they won't be the only game in town."

To help staff the special investigations unit, Mr. Williams hired two former state prosecutors, Frank Fina and E. Marc Costanzo. They joined a previous hire, Patrick J. Blessington, who was also a colleague from the attorney general's office.

In addition to political corruption, Mr. Williams said the three could handle cases involving police violence or other serious investigations. In all, the special investigations unit has seven prosecutors.

Mr. Williams is taking a different tack than his predecessor, Lynne M. Abraham. During her 18 years in office, Ms. Abraham carried out a number of high-profile corruption investigations, among them widespread theft at Philadelphia International Airport and allegations of abuses by Philadelphia Gas Works executives.

But Ms. Abraham repeatedly referred political corruption cases to state or federal prosecutors. She always defended the referrals, arguing that she had a potential conflict of interest if she sought to pursue fellow Democrats.

The new investigative jury is to be supervised by Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, who will decide such key issues as the reach of subpoenas or the ground rules for testimony.

In 2006, Republican Tom Corbett, then state attorney general and now governor, created a public corruption unit and named Mr. Fina chief deputy attorney general.

In 2008, Mr. Fina's team used a grand jury to issue the sweeping indictment known as "Bonusgate," which accused Democrats in the state House of funneling $3.8 million in illegal payments to aides in return for campaign work. Former Democratic State Rep. Mike Veon of Beaver Coiunty and eight Democratic staffers were convicted.

The next year, Mr. Fina's team brought the "Computergate" cases, which accused Perzel of spending more than $10 million of taxpayer money to develop software to help Republicans win election. Convicted in the scheme were Perzel, the veteran politician from Northeast Philadelphia; former Republican State Rep. Brett O. Feese; and six GOP aides.

Most recently, Mr. Fina helped investigate and prosecute Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State child molester.

For Mr. Costanzo and Mr. Blessington, who declined to comment, the new job in Philadelphia marks a return home. Both began their careers as city prosecutors and both later became state prosecutors.

Mr. Williams called the trio "heavy hitters."

"I brought them in, gave them the keys to the car, and said, 'Take it wherever it takes you,' " he said.

L. George Parry, former chief of former District Attorney and Gov. Ed Rendell's squad, said Mr. Williams' team might face tough going in politicized Philadelphia courts.

"He deserves a lot of credit for bringing in these outstanding prosecutors to try and get the job done," Mr. Parry said. "The risk is, despite whatever good work they perform, their work product could very well be chewed to pieces in the Philadelphia court system. But the results could be tremendous."

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