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FBI agents showed up at the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office at 100 S. Broad St. Thursday morning and,  armed with a search warrant,  removed files and other records connected to the office’s division which handles sheriff sales — and through which millions of dollars flows annually.

A few hours later, the Sheriff’s Office put out a short communiqué describing the raid as “part of an ongoing investigation begun in the previous administration.”

By “previous administration,” they were presumably referring to the administration of former Sheriff John Green, who oversaw the office for more than two decades and left abruptly, amid speculation over mismanaged funds and cronyism in early 2011.

The Williams administration appears intent on communicating that whatever the FBI was looking for, it happened under Green.  

And while FBI officials would not confirm any details of the target or scope of the search, virtually every news outlet reporting the story framed the raid within the context of scandal surrounding Green’s tenure as sheriff, mentioning recent criminal charges against individuals involved in a scam run out of the sheriff’s office under Green, a report by City Controller Alan Butkovitz questioning millions of dollars’ worth of transactions under Green, and a lawsuit by the city against Green and two companies owned by James Davis, Green’s friend, who did business with the sheriff’s office.

But it’s not actually clear at all that this investigation is focused on Sheriff Green or anything that happened under his watch.

Asked whether and how the Sheriff’s Office knows the current investigation dates back to Green’s tenure, Joe Black, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, declined to elaborate. What’s more, an attorney for James Davis, the owner of the companies the city and Controller accuse of bilking the office, says his client has not been contacted by the FBI.

Meanwhile, there are reasons that raise questions as to whether this investigation has more recent roots. After all, it was the Real Estate Division as managed now, under Williams, that was served not just a subpoena but a search warrant — suggesting federal officials believed there was a risk of evidence being destroyed or removed.

The FBI could be continuing an investigation into the office as it was managed by Green; but it could also be looking into activities that occurred after Green left — either under interim Sheriff Barbara Deeley or current Sheriff Jewell Williams

Findings by AxisPhilly, meanwhile, raise questions about how the office has been managed in the two years since Green left.

Here’s a brief review of some of what we have found so far:

  • The sheriff’s office has, by it’s own admission, “no accounting system,” — that’s how Sheriff Jewell Williams described it in a letter addressing questions by City Council members in May. Williams claimed that his office was unable to track its own finances and relied instead on a ledger of checks, which “may overstate payments.” It was precisely by manipulating the office’s check-tracking system that former employee Richard Bell was able to defraud the office of more than $400,000. And while Butkovitz had slammed the Green administration for sitting on more than $50 million in unclaimed funds, which were eventually turned over to a state fund, AxisPhilly found that Williams’ administration was reporting sitting on more than $14 million in unclaimed funds itself.
  • Documents obtained by AxisPhilly showed that the sheriff was purchasing meals for Sheriff’s Office employees during sheriff sales from Marinucci’s Deli, a restaurant with political connections to acting sheriff Barbara Deeley via fees charged directly to properties going up for sheriff sale. City code, which lays out fees that the sheriff may charge, makes no mention of meals. AxisPhilly’s direct request for documentation of how funds from property accounts are being spent was denied with the support of the city’s Law department.
  • While interim Sheriff Barbara Deeley was supposed to have been cleaning house when she removed most of the office’s real estate division and severed contracts with Davis’ companies, AxisPhilly found that the Sheriff’s Office, under her brief tenure as acting sheriff, quickly entered into no-bid contracts  with politically-connected firms, including one — City Line Abstract Company, owned by one Andrew Miller — cited in the indictment of former Pa. Turnpike Commissioner Mitchell Rubin for having paid Rubin for “steering” the firm work from the sheriff’s office.
  • AxisPhilly found other curious contract arrangements under interim sheriff Barbara Deeley’s leadership. In one case, the Sheriff’s Office contracted with Philadelphia Search and Abstract, LLC, a company which has no web site, phone number, or contact and whose address belongs to another company with a sheriff’s contract, Aaracor Search + Abstract Services, whose principal, Anthony Angelo, has since agreed to the revocation of his license for misappropriating nearly $1 million. Angelo has been a generous donor to the campaign fund of Democratic party boss Bob Brady.
  • A company run by Brady’s wife and founded by now-indicted Mitchell Rubin, meanwhile, was selected by the city administration during Deeley’s interim leadership to take on work related to sheriff sales. That contract was apparently cancelled after a successful labor dispute by the sheriff’s deputies, who had previously performed the job.
  • The Sheriff’s Office and city’s law department have, bafflingly, refused to explain seemingly-basic policies around sheriff’s sales, including how opening bids are set. Meanwhile,  the sheriff’s office, with the support of the city’s law department, denied a request for public records of sheriff sales, including case ledgers showing the distribution of funds to and from accounts for individual properties — the same kind that, when obtained independently, revealed the office was spending unknown thousands on deli orders.

There’s some of the smoke.  Whether there is a fire remains to be seen as the FBI combs over the records it seized.