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In the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, “reform” looks a lot like business as usual.

Three years ago, Barbara Deeley, a deputy under former Sheriff John Green, became the first new Sheriff of Philadelphia in more than two decades, taking control of an office surrounded by allegations of cronyism, financial mismanagement, and even fraud, with the promise of cleaning it up.

Among her first priorities was to clean house when it came to the lucrative business of advertising sheriff sales.

In Pennsylvania, properties that are foreclosed upon for mortgage or tax debts have to be sold in a public auction by the county sheriff. Those sales, by law, must be advertised ahead of time. This advertising, paid for with deposits required by the banks or city taking the properties to sale are worth money – a lot of money.

It’s a pile of money over which the Philadelphia Sheriff has a great deal of influence. Under Green, millions of dollars in sheriff sale ads were distributed among as many as a dozen newspapers — some with wide circulation , like the Inquirer and Daily News, some with smaller audiences, such as the Public Record, the Sunday Sun, and the Philadelphia Tribune.

For more than a decade, a single company – Reach Communications, owned by a friend of and political contributor to Green — was granted the lucrative business of placing those ads, earning a 15 percent commission for each.

It was Reach Communications that became the focus of two audits of the Sheriff’s Office under Green, done by City Controller Alan Butkovitz. Within days of becoming interim sheriff after Green stepped down following the first audit, Deeley terminated the office’s business relationship with Reach Communications.

A second “forensic” report accusing Reach of overcharging the Sheriff for its services, according to the City Controller’s website, “led to a complete structural and procedural overhaul of the Sheriff’s Office.”

But, two years later, the “new” structure established by Deeley and preserved by current Sheriff Jewell Williams looks a lot like the old one.

Take the friendly — and lucrative — relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and a group of papers organized into a coalition — the Philadelphia Multicultural Media Network — organized by longtime Democratic politico Kenneth Smukler.

Smukler, a campaign consultant and erstwhile spokesman for Democratic party boss Bob Brady, was brought into the Sheriff’s Office under Deeley as an unpaid consultant to help her with the transition. After Deeley booted Reach Communications from its job as advertiser, it was Smuker who brought suggestions for a new company to take up an “emergency contract” to handle advertising placement, a contract still in place though the emergency is long over.

Among several companies Smukler said he recommended was Cardenas-Grant Communications— a firm owned by Luz Cardenas and Barbara Grant, both former spokespeople for Mayor John Street.

Cardenas-Grant was awarded the contract to place ads and, like Reach,  get a commission on every ad placed.  Not a bad business, since monthly ad sales can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Within months of being hired for the job with Smukler’s recommendation, Cardenas Grant turned around and hired Smukler — as an employee.

Smukler describes the arrangement as a way that he, effectively working full-time for Sheriff Deeley, he says, could be paid for his help without becoming a city employee — “I simply worked out a way to be compensated without using taxpayer dollars,” he explained in a recent interview.

Smukler worked for CGC, coordinating ad placements and receiving a salary, for much of 2011.

And then, in early 2012, he left the company to form his own — “Liberty City Press,” devoted almost entirely to publishing sheriff sale ads, business which Cardenas Grant appears to have been happy to send Smukler’s way.

Within about a year, in other words, Smukler had helped Cardenas Grant Communications secure a contract, gone to work for the company, and then became a major beneficiary of its business.

Documents showing Smukler placing ads in several local papers as agent for Cardenas Grant, and then invoicing the Sheriff’s Office for ads placed as a representative of those papers first emerged in several reports by a local blogger, and were featured on the blog, published by Christopher Sawyer.

Smukler’s company, Liberty City Press, essentially acts as a central publisher for sheriff sale ads that run in several local minority and ethnic newspapers: the Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese/Viet Weekly, and the Sunday Sun, a paper owned and run by Philadelphia NAACP president Jerry Mondesire. Essentially, Smukler provides an insert containing sheriff sale ads for these papers — for, of course, a commission.

Smukler says the idea was to bundle advertising within this network of papers and, using their combined circulation, sell ads to corporations and others interested in reaching minority readers.

About a year in, however, Liberty City Press has only found one such client: the Sheriff’s Office. A typical issue includes between one and four pages of “news” content (“Avoid Common Exercise Mistakes,” was a recent example) and then pages and pages of sheriff sale ads.  The latest issue consisted of a single front page opinion piece and 10 pages of sheriff sale ads.

The ads appear to be worth at least around $160,000 monthly — or roughly $2 million a year — for the network’s members, according to documents obtained and first published by blogger Chris Sawyer.

Of course, they’re not the only ones to capitalize on the willingness of the current sheriff to exceed the advertisement requirements laid out in state law.

That law states that all sheriff sales have to be advertised in the Legal Intelligencer, a subscription newspaper which primarily serves the legal community, and another paper of “general circulation.”

Despite repeated requests by AxisPhilly, the Sheriff’s Office has declined to reveal how many papers it advertises in or how much it pays for the service. A survey of available print publications revealed sheriff ads in at least the following publications, all of which have ties to local politics.

  •  The Public Record, a newspaper owned by former Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, which has deep ties to political interests.
  • The Independent  Voice, a free weekly newspaper, run by James Foster, a  former Independent candidate for City Council and the Second Congressional District  seat occupied by U.S. Rep Chakka Fattah
  • The Neighborhood Leader, a tiny newspaper published by Heshimu Jaramogi, a former reporter who has also handled advertising for U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, as well as Congressman and Democratic party boss Bob Brady.

How the Sheriff chooses these publications is unclear — the office has refused to answer specific questions about its advertising practices. At one point, spokesman Joe Blake said a list of the publications was posted on the Sheriff’s website. In fact, the website mentions only the Legal Intelligencer, Inquirer, and Daily News.

Smukler defends his own network’s lucrative arrangement as an antidote to what he characterizes a sweetheart deal for the larger “papers of record,” notably the Legal Intelligencer and Inquirer.

The newspapers his network “live in the neighborhoods and support small business in the neighborhoods,” Smukler said. “Is it really a bad thing to distribute advertisements beyond the Inquirer and the Daily News, particularly when their circulations are tanking?”

Smukler points out that the Sunday Sun recently implemented a searchable database of sheriff sale listings — a clunky feature, but one not found on the Sheriff’s Office website. (The Legal Intelligencer also has a search engine.)

“The Inquirer and the Daily News, … they could have come up with a searchable database too — did they?”

To advocates of reform of the Sheriff’s Office, the issue is not how the advertising pie is sliced, but the fact these ads add costs to the foreclosure process that are ultimately born by distressed homeowners. Advertising  – by far the bulk of fees added in the sheriff sale process – may be paid by the banks, but they are simply added to the judgment against homeowners. They stand as one more hurdle to getting out of foreclosure.

According to Philadelphia Legal Assistance attorney Irwin Trauss, who has advocated for homeowners in foreclosure, advertising costs have actually gone up since Reach was ousted. “At least with Reach, there were some economies of scale,” Trauss says.

Irv Ackelsberg, another attorney who’s advocated for reform of foreclosure policies, agrees.

In addition to delinquent mortgage payments and lawyers fees for homeowners to reckon with, Ackelsberg says,  “now there’s a judgment against them for fees to the sheriff.”

“So what’s going on here? Well obviously, what’s going on is not the Sheriff finding the most cost effective way to do this.”

Follow Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.