On the day after federal prosecutors won a major victory in the public corruption trial of Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Lecturer in Law Jennifer Arbittier Williams C’92 L’95, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, walked into her classroom full of inquisitive 2Ls and 3Ls.
They wanted to know: What were the details of the verdict? How would the convictions of the two powerful city leaders impact Philadelphia?
The Dougherty-Henon corruption trial
Dougherty, the longtime business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and leader of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, resigned his posts after his Monday convictions on charges of conspiracy and honest services fraud. Henon, convicted of similar charges, said he would not resign until his February sentencing, but has relinquished his Council committee leadership roles.
Federal prosecutors accused both men of defrauding Philadelphia and its citizens of the right to Henon’s honest services as a member of City Council, contending that he received a salary and other items of value from IBEW in exchange for doing Dougherty’s bidding. A federal jury agreed.
“It’s basically a declaration that it is not OK, it is not legal for city councilmen to be beholden to a political godfather, to one particular special interest,” Williams said. “They really do need to represent the interests of the city at large.”
Williams believes the convictions will change the way the city does business.
“I see this as a really positive sign and do think it will absolutely have an impact,” she said. “Think back to the conviction of the Traffic Court judges. That really changed how things were done in the city and I think this is as important and as impactful.”
The case against Dougherty and Henon was a major win for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, headed by Williams since January.
“It is a lot of hard work,” she said of the amount of time the lead prosecutors in her office and investigators from the FBI, IRS, and U.S. Department of Labor dedicated to the case. “Cases like this one are built on lots of little pieces of evidence, all of which had to be presented to the jury. So, it takes a lot of time to review the evidence, a lot of time to collect the evidence, and then a lot of work to put together a trial presentation.”
U.S. Attorney and Lecturer in Law
On Thursday, November 18, Williams was able to shed the “Acting” part of her title, which she had held since January 22, when U.S. Attorney William McSwain left office. She had been his first assistant. Under the Vacancies Reform Act, an acting U.S. attorney may serve up to 300 days.
Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed Williams to stay on for 120 more days or until President Joe Biden appoints someone new. Williams said she didn’t apply for the permanent job, calling herself a “career prosecutor” and “apolitical.”
“Each administration likes to start over with their own people, so it didn’t seem like it made sense,” she said. “And it’s someone else’s turn. That’s how the Department of Justice works.”
This semester, Williams has been co-teaching a National Security Investigations and Prosecutions course at the Law School with FBI Senior Counsel and Supervisory Special Agent Patricia Hund Zebertavage. There are 12 students in the class.
“It’s an experiential class, which means we teach through doing,” Williams said. Using a made-up example set in “Star Wars world, so that it’s not real-life people,” she said, they take the class through a national security investigation.
“We talk through what investigative steps they would want to take. And then we have them write up certain documents that they would in a real investigation,” she said. “The last thing they will write up is a prosecution memo advocating to charge whomever they want to charge with whatever crimes they think they committed.”
Previously, Williams taught one-day classes as a lecturer on criminal law attended by international lawyers and people in other Penn departments as part of the Law School’s summer program.
Strong Penn ties
As a Penn undergraduate, Williams majored in American History. She comes from a Penn family. Her father, Steve Arbittier C’60 L’63, graduated from both the College of Arts & Sciences and the Law School. Additionally, two of Williams’ sisters, her brother, and a sister-in-law also attended Penn for undergraduate or graduate studies as well.
During her Law School years, she said, she was fortunate to have taken a small-class seminar with the Honorable Louis Pollak, who had served as Dean of the Law School from 1975 to 1978 before being appointed to the federal bench. He continued to teach a seminar as an adjunct professor in the Law School until his 2012 death.
Judge Pollak “was just an incredibly kind and wise man,” Williams said. During the class, students discussed U.S. Supreme Court opinions released during that session.
She also fondly remembered Professor of Law Frank Goodman, now emeritus, as an important mentor who taught her about federal courts. He wrote a recommendation for her for her first clerkship with the Honorable Anita Brody, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Early and persistent prosecutorial aspirations
Williams knew early on in life she wanted to be a prosecutor. When she was 14 and a sophomore at Abington High School, her great-uncle, Leon Klinghoffer, who was in a wheelchair, was singled out and killed by Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean in October 1985. He was shot and thrown overboard.
“I was a kid but old enough to be aware that this was real and horrific,” she said. Her family went up to New York to be with Klinghoffer’s widow and daughters.
“The press was ever present. They all wanted to talk to us. They all wanted pictures of us. And it gave me great perspective to how it feels to be dealing with something very personal, but also very public,” she said. “And that also stays with me as a prosecutor. I recognize for victims, it’s very personal.”
Williams was also in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes. Then a litigation associate with Morvillo Abramowitz, she heard that a plane hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. She went to the patio of the midtown Manhattan firm and saw the second plane fly into the second tower. “Everyone in New York and the country was in shock at that moment,” she said.
She and her colleagues watched on TV as the Twin Towers collapsed. In midtown, “it was just complete silence except for sirens. It was very eerie,” she said.
Before Morvillo Abramowitz, she had applied to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York and New Jersey and had gotten lots of interviews but had been told she needed more experience. The New York firm gave her the criminal defense experience she needed, and in 2001 she applied again and got a job the next year as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
She’s been there since. She rose to become chief of the National Security and Cyber Crime Unit and served in that position for a year and half before being tapped by McSwain to be his first assistant.
Facilitating interagency, cross-disciplinary collaboration
Williams’ tenure as the lead federal prosecutor in the region has been marked by collaboration with other agencies, a focus on crime prevention, and a pledge for more federal prosecutions of local gun-violence cases.
Early this year, the Threat Intervention and Prevention (TIP) Network was launched, focusing on preventing mass violence before it occurs. It’s comprised of a “Core Team” of threat-assessment experts from more than a dozen law enforcement agencies and a “Community Team” of diverse organizations in the region.
“The thing about the TIP Network that is so groundbreaking is that we’ve designed it so that members of the Community Team can call on the Core Team at any moment” to brainstorm and assess a potential threat by an individual, Williams said. “We have access to a very broad network of mental health experts, mentors, religious organizations, and we can help support the organization and this individual in whatever way makes the most sense to prevent them from moving on to the next step along the violent pathway.”
Williams also announced an “All Hands On Deck” partnership with other law-enforcement agencies to identify, investigate, and hold responsible perpetrators of violent crime. More recently, the office announced that Philadelphia was designated by the Justice Department as one of 10 new National Public Safety Partnership sites that will receive federal training, technical assistance, and other resources to help city police address gun violence.
Williams is married to state Rep. Craig Williams, a Republican serving parts of Delaware and Chester counties. They have four children.
Despite being incredibly busy, she said, she always has time for Law School students.
“I love mentoring law students and young lawyers,” she said. “I love giving back to Penn Law and the legal community.”