This story is part of an ongoing series looking into the Office of the Philadelphia Sheriff.
As far as public offices go, the Office of the Philadelphia Sheriff is not exactly famous for transparency. Sheriff sales are arcane proceedings whose ways are best known to only a dedicated few, advertised in obscure newspapers and recorded in obscure ledgers. The office itself occupies a nondescript floor in an office building on South Broad Street. In it, the public may access records for the several thousand properties that are going or have gone through the sheriff’s sale process via a single computer running an ancient database created in the early 1990s.
It was in this opaque realm that Jamie Moffett found himself when he learned that the vacant lot near his Kensington studio, 3311 Rand St., was going to be auctioned at sheriff’s sale. Moffett, a local film producer and the progenitor of the “Kensington Renewal” project, has been trying to change delinquency patterns in a small portion of Kensington for years — and this property, a vacant lot just a few doors down from his studio, has been abandoned and tax-delinquent for decades, and had become a convenient way for drug dealers to get to an alley that cut through the middle of the block. Moffett was thrilled the property was going to sale.
But when he discovered the opening bid, the thrill was gone: the minimum opening bid had been set by the city at $4,500 — nearly double the $2,400 the city has assessed its value, and substantially more than Moffett was prepared to pay. He wasn’t the only one: no one bid, and 3311 Rand St. remained just as vacant and tax-delinquent after the sale as it was before. (It is, however, cleaner — despite not owning it, Moffett sank some $2,000 out of his own pocket to fence the lot off).
So he wondered: why not just start the opening bid lower? The city regularly brings properties to sheriff sale with a minimum opening bid of just $1,000 – a price Moffett would happily have paid.
It’s a seemingly simple question that, after weeks of emails to and from various city offices and city officials, after multiple right-to-know requests and interviews with at least a dozen individuals knowledgeable about sheriff sales – remains unanswered. But a reporter’s attempts to answer it have led to some surprising findings nonetheless – like the fact that a ledger showing expenses and payments related to the property includes a baffling small expenditure, after the sale was conducted, to a local deli with political ties to public officials involved in sheriff office dealings. Or the fact that the city, when asked to explain how it set the opening bid for the property, was unable or unwilling to give any details. Or the fact that the sheriff’s office has refused to provide similar breakdowns for other properties, claiming – with the assistance of city lawyers – that they are available to the public on the one hand (they are not), and that they are not subject to public records requests on the other.
Among the documents denied to AxisPhilly were “case ledgers,” or records which treat each property sold at sheriff sale as a monetary account into which funds covering expenses are deposited and from which expenses are debited.
AxisPhilly did obtain such a ledger for 3311 Rand, supplied by the sheriff’s office (despite the law department’s later claim that the record isn’t public), which listed $2.20 for “professional fees” for Marinucci’s Deli, a Mayfair restaurant which, according to Yelp, has “the best hoagies in Northeast Philly,” and whose owner, Nancy Marinucci, was described in a 2011 Inquirer article as a “longtime friend” of then acting sheriff Barbara Deeley.
It turns out that Marinucci’s Deli supplies lunch for officials at sheriff sales and that the bill for those lunches is paid for by fees on the properties and divided among them. The $2.20 fee represented just a fraction of that total cost. To know how much the deli charged, you’d have to multiply it by the number of properties taken to sheriff sale: at least several hundred a month, often many more — not bad work for any deli, not to mention one whose owners are friends with the former acting sheriff.
Of course, the just more than $2 expenditure doesn’t explain why 3311 Rand was auctioned off starting at double its worth, and for approximately $3,000 more than the city claims it was seeking to recover from the sale. Nor does it explain why properties brought to sheriff sale by the city are frequently auctioned off starting at $1,000, while those brought to sheriff sale by Linebargers, Goggan Blair and Sampson L.P., which conducts some tax foreclosures on behalf of the city, receive substantially higher opening bids – like 3311 Rand – making them less likely to sell at all.
After a series of emails back and forth between AxisPhilly and the city’s Law and Revenue departments (the city ultimately sets all opening bids for properties taken to sheriff sale), administration spokesman Mark McDonald finally gave this short answer: the city, McDonald said, was not prepared to discuss how it sets opening bids — at all.
It’s a silence into which the city is willing to invest some energy. A Right to Know request for various documents from recent sheriff’s sales, including copies of case ledgers , like the document showing an inexplicable expense to Marinucci’s Deli – was refused by the city, whose lawyers apparently handle such records requests to the sheriff.
The 5-page letter, signed by assistant city solicitor Benjamin S. Mishkin, claims alternately that the documents are already public, and that they are not public and therefore are not subject to a Right to Know request. Case ledgers, it claims, are available via the single (and profoundly slow) computer terminal at the Sheriff’s Office – but this is not the case; public access is limited to only some records, case ledgers not included.
Meanwhile the city rejects the same request and requests for other documents on various other bases – including that they represent “records reflecting the home address of individuals,” — those addresses being the same of which the sheriff publishes a list every month.