It’s been two years since former State Rep. Jewell Williams was elected Philadelphia Sheriff. He took office amid allegations of financial mismanagement and possible fraud surrounding his predecessor, former Sheriff John Green, and the office that he ran for more than two decades.
But AxisPhilly is finding evidence that some of the same problems that brought scrutiny to the office while Green was sheriff remain and are ongoing — including a somewhat startling recent memo in which Sheriff Williams claimed that his office can’t track its own finances, and the tens of millions of dollars that flow through it annually.
This assertion is buried in a series of responses to questions posed to Sheriff Williams and his staff during Council’s budget hearings — specifically Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez’s question about how much money the Sheriff’s office turns over to the city.
Williams’ answer to that question included a chart apparently breaking down those funds — but also this rather significant caveat:
“Note: the Sheriff has no accounting system. We are currently installing one. The figures come from the check writing system and therefore may overstate the payments due to voided checks.”
The Sheriff’s office has not responded to several requests for clarification on the memo’s meaning or implications. Asked about the memo, Joseph Vignola, who had already been in communication with AxisPhilly about other matters regarding the Sheriff’s office, said for the first time in our correspondence that all questions should be directed to communications director Joe Blake. Blake, who was copied on that email correspondence, hasn’t replied to that or to another email asking for comment.
Another question raised by the document submitted by Williams is why his office is still apparently sitting on $14 million in an “escheat” funds. These funds, which are left over from sales when the sheriff is unable to locate the person or persons to whom it belongs, is supposed to go to the city in cases where the rightful owners can’t be found.
But some of these rightful owners have often had an extremely hard time claiming their rightful dues, as Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky and others have reported.
Joe O’Hara, a Realtor who’s spent years pursuing the return of these sums to individuals for a fee, says that the new Sheriff hasn’t changed an old problem.
“I don’t even solicit [clients] anymore,” because of the resistance he says they would face to reclaiming funds, he told AxisPhilly this week.
And even as the city announced just last month a lawsuit against former Sheriff Green over his office’s use of escheat money, there has been virtually no conversation about what Sheriff Williams is doing with the $14 million his office has amassed.
“Where does the money go? Who accounts for that if they don’t have an accounting system?” asked Quinones-Sanchez, whose question sparked the intriguing response, in a rhetorical question put to AxisPhilly last week.
The Councilwoman did try to get answers last week, but the sheriff’s staff canceled her scheduled meeting with them at the last minute, she said.
The Sheriff’s office has had a long, troubled history with its accounting practices. In early 2011, After 22 years in the office, former Sheriff Green stepped down amid wide-ranging questions about the office’s finances – among them questions about $53 million the office had sitting in its bank account, much of it apparently from undistributed revenue left over from sheriff sales.
Upon taking the reins, his temporary successor, deputy sheriff Barbara Deeley, promptly fired most of the office’s real estate division – earning some praise for an apparent willingness to implement change. But the firings also raised an obvious question: Why were they necessary? What had been going on?
In November 2011, as Williams was confirmed as the new sheriff, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a forensic audit of the office that alleged, among other things, that the Sheriff’s office had contracted with two companies owned by a political player who had donated to Green’s campaign, Reach Communications and RCS for advertising and other services – and that he had allowed the office to be overcharged to the tune of $11 million for those services.
And last month the city announced its lawsuit against Green and Reach/RCS.
But after all that it’s unclear how much has actually changed in terms of how the office functions and what safeguards against future scandal are (or aren’t) in place now.
“Given the fact that we have a new sheriff I was hopeful that there would be more reform more quickly,” says Zack Stahlberg of the watchdog group the Committee of Seventy, which has been a vocal critic of the Sheriff’s office in the past and which supported Mayor Michael Nutter’s failed effort to strip the office of most of its current functions.
Sheriff Williams, meanwhile, does seem to be sure about one set of numbers. Accounting system or no, he’s asked Council to raise the budget for his office by 30 percent.