Amid Purported Reforms, No-Bid Insider Contracts Persist in Sheriff's Office

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBC Philadelphia

    When former Sheriff John Green stepped down from his position — a job which would eventually be filled by former state rep. Jewell Williams — the resignation was supposed to have signaled the end of pattern of cronyism and insider deals.

    But examining the record of the months that followed Green’s resignation, it’s not clear that much about the status quo did change — except, maybe, who was benefiting from it.

    Last week, AxisPhilly.org reported that the Sheriff’s Office under Williams has, by his own admission, “no accounting system.”

    AxisPhilly has now found that even while ostensibly cleaning house under the interim leadership of acting sheriff Barbara Deeley, the Sheriff’s Office also entered into no-bid contracts with new politically connected companies – one linked to a major political corruption indictment, another owned by former Sheriff’s Office employees, another whose owners have made significant political donations, and another that appears to have almost no public record of its existence at all. These financial relationships beg the question of whether recent “sweeps” within the sheriff’s office represented reform, or simply redistribution.

    The Sheriff’s Office, like other independently-elected county office, is one of the remaining bastions of patronage in a city with a still-powerful political machine. To control the office is to control jobs and contracts, and to oversee the distribution of millions of dollars, which flow primarily from sheriff sales.

    It was this source of revenue around which allegations of mismanagement and fraud hovered in early 2011, when Sheriff John Green resigned from his position, just ahead of an impending forensic audit of his office by the City Controller. That audit was triggered by an earlier report that said that the sheriff couldn’t account for $53 million.

    The allegations of wrongdoing grew louder when Deputy Sheriff Barbara Deeley, who assumed the role of acting sheriff after Green’s departure, immediately removed four staff members from the office’s real estate division and cut contracts with two companies owned by James Davis — a friend of former sheriff Green and the brother of one of the real estate employees who had been removed. That November, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released the promised forensic audit, which found that Davis’ companies, Reach Communications and RCS Searchers, had effectively taken over the office’s real estate division, overcharging the city by tens of millions in various fees related to sheriff sales.

    But even as the controller’s audit was awaiting publication and acting sheriff Barbara Deeley was ostensibly cleaning house, her office was also issuing new contracts to different politically-connected firms with questionable records.

    Under Deeley’s watch, the Sheriff’s Office contracted with at least three such firms.

    One is City Line Abstract Company, a name which appeared in a March grand jury report that led to the indictment by State Attorney General Kathleen Kane of eight individuals connected to the Pennsylvania Turnpike — among them former Turnpike commissioner Mitchell Rubin. Rubin was sentenced in 2010 to five years’ probation for obstruction of justice in the trial of former State Senator Vince Fumo; his wife, Ruth Arnao was sentenced to five years prison time for her role in Fumo’s conviction on corruption charges. He is now accused of bid rigging, criminal conspiracy, bribery and other charges for steering Turnpike work to City Line Abstract while receiving more than $200,000 in payments from the company.

    The payments, the grand jury report says, were not in exchange for Turnpike work itself, but as “the result of work Rubin steered to City Line Abstract Company within the Philadelphia sheriff’s office.” How Rubin, who was not working at the sheriff’s office, could have steered such business isn’t spelled out; but, if true, the fact might speak to how close ties can be between politics and sheriff’s office contracts.

    All of this occurred between 2007-2009, while Green was still sheriff. But city records show that in September, 2011, while Deeley was still serving as interim sheriff, the Office issued a Notice of Intent to enter into a new no-bid contract with City Line Abstract Company.

    On the same day, the Sheriff’s Office issued similar notices to contract with several other title companies, including Tyler Firm, LLC — owned by Janet Pina, a longtime employee of the office; Olde City Abstract, whose principal, Frank Ermilio, has been a donor to several political campaigns; and Philadelphia Search & Abstract, LLC — a company with no web site, no apparent trace online, and a phone number at which no one answers. Its address, 427 S. Broad, is tied to a limited liability company whose address, in turn, is the same as title company ARACOR Search + Abstract Services — which also received a contract on the same day, and whose principal, Anthony Angelo, donated several thousand dollars to party boss Bob Brady.

    City records immediately available do not show the value or duration of these contracts, which were preceded with Requests For Proposals, but were not competitively bid.

    Asked about the rationale behind them — why they weren’t bid, and why they were awarded to these particular companies — Sheriff’s Office spokesman Joseph Blake was unable to comment by our deadline (he has promised to do so on Friday). Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, answered that the administration is “working with the Sheriff’s Office to help improve their back-office processes,” but that, because the Sheriff is independently-elected, “If the question is, ‘Can we force the sheriff to competitively bid contracts, the answer is no.”

    The city itself has entered into non-bid contracts with some of the same companies: ARACOR, which has a $260,000 contract with the Revenue Department; and Tyler Firm, LLC, the company owned by former Sheriff Office employee Janet Pina (Mayor spokesman Mark McDonald emphasizes that while these contracts were not necessarily awarded to the lowest bidder, they were selected via Requests for Proposals and were competitive).

    Pina, a longtime spokesperson for former sheriff Green, also appears by name in the city’s lawsuit disputing the validity of the contracts between the sheriff and Reach Communications and RCS Searchers; the complaint claims that her signature, allegedly authorizing those contracts, was forged by someone else.

    That means that Ms. Pina’s company will be employed by the city even as she may testify on the city’s behalf in court.

    It should be noted that the city hasn’t paid Ms. Pina’s company anything, according to its most recent quarterly report on non-bid contracts. What services the company has been hired to render, it would seem, haven’t yet been performed.