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In Philadelphia politics, appearances can be deceiving.
The Office of Philadelphia Sheriff is a good example.
There is, for starters, the fact that the Sheriff does not actually serve in a law enforcement capacity. The position is a vestigial elected position – a so-called “row office” — left over from the days before consolidation, and is now responsible only for transporting prisoners, guarding courtrooms, and conducting sheriff sales. It also serves, as do other row offices, as a mechanism for political patronage – the rewarding and encouragement of political and personal loyalty with jobs.
And then there’s the deceptively simple narrative that’s emerged around the departure of former sheriff John Green.
It goes like this: Green, who held the position of sheriff for more than two decades, allowed a particular contractor with whom he was friends – James Davis, the owner of reach Communications and RCS Searchers — to have unusual control over various aspects of the sheriff sale process, which brings hundreds of millions through the office every year. The relationship grew so close – Green bought his house from Davis, Davis contributed to Green’s campaigns, Reach employees worked side by side with employees of the Sheriff’s office, etc. – that City Controller Alan Butkovitz commissioned an audit that essentially accused Davis’s companies of overcharging for their services, and questioned the source and purpose of tens of millions of dollars in a sheriff’s office bank account.
Even before that audit was released, Green was pressured to resign in early 2011. Deputy Sheriff Barbara Deeley became the acting sheriff. She immediately removed most of the office’s real estate division and terminated its relationship with Reach and RCS, all in an effort to clean house before the newly-elected sheriff, Jewell Williams, took office.
That, certainly, is one side of the story. But there is another possible story suggested by the flurry of activity that took place as soon as Green was out and Deeley was in, as outlined in a series of findings published by AxisPhilly in the past few weeks.
AxisPhilly discovered that in the weeks and months following Green’s departure, under the leadership of acting sheriff Barbara Deeley, the office established several new no-bid contracts with firms with political connections – including one, City Line Abstract Company, owned by one Andrew Miller, that was connected to the recent indictment of former Pa. Turnpike Commissioner Mitchell Rubin.
We found that the city itself attempted to shift work normally done by deputy sheriffs to another politically-connected company, Philadelphia Writ Services, which was founded by now-indicted Mitchell Rubin and run by Deborah Brady, the wife of party boss U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.
We found that the sheriff’s office currently uses sheriff sale funds to purchase meals from Marinucci’s Deli, owned by friends of Barbara Deeley, likely to the tune of thousands of dollars monthly.
And there may be much more to tell about that story yet.
A civil lawsuit filed by Reach Communications and RCS, before it was itself sued by the city, depicts a plan on the part of various political powers – the First Judicial District, the Office of the City Controller, and the city – not to stomp out cronyism but instead to redirect political patronage to new friends and allies.
These allegations and insinuations, of course, should be taken for what they are – the basis of a lawsuit against the city and sheriff’s office. And the city, which in turn sued Reach and RCS, has made its own case claiming that the companies, empowered by former sheriff Green, bilked the city out of millions.
Still, they describe a complex web of political and personal relationships behind efforts at “reforming” the sheriff’s office that call into question whether reform was ever the intent of various players in the first place.
Butkovitz, whose announced audit of the sheriff’s office under Sheriff Green shortly preceded Green’s resignation and Deeley’s temporary promotion to acting sheriff, had for years employed Lisa Deeley, Barbara Deeley’s daughter.
It was Butkovitz who hired a company called Lexington Technology Auditing, which is owned by Dean Picciotti, a friend of former controller Jonathan Saidel and a former partner of current under sheriff Joe Vignola. The company was incorporated just months before getting hired to conduct the audit.
It was that same company that Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Dembe suggested be awarded a $650,000 no-bid contract to build a new computer system for the sheriff’s office (a suggestion nixed by both Mayor Nutter and Controller Butkovitz).
Reach and RCS’s lawsuit against the city also suggests a racial backdrop to the shakeup within the sheriff’s office. Under Sheriff Green’s long tenure, the office became a bastion of patronage especially for African-Americans, (just as other “row offices” seem to skew white). Those directing the shakeup – notably Deeley, Butkovitz, and Dembe – are white, as are the owners of several companies awarded contracts during this period.
There are, of course, accusations to go around: In its lawsuit against Reach Communications and RCS, the city alleges that these companies overcharged for all manner of services; some of the players mentioned in the city’s lawsuit (not Reach or RCS) have since been charged criminally in federal court.
But these details poke holes in the claims of transparency and reform made under Deeley’s watch and, now, under the watch of Sheriff Jewell Williams.
And the current sheriff hasn’t exactly opened his doors for scrutiny: public access has been limited to a single computer terminal – 30 minutes maximum. The sheriff’s office has refused requests to review records relating to its sheriff sales. And questions about the financial details of its operations have been met with silence.
And they raise the question of what, exactly, the shakeup in sheriff’s office was all about. It was billed as reform. But it’s not hard to see how it also constituted a redistribution of political booty. As one close observer put it recently: “It was a coup.”