I’ll be honest, for this edition of Your City Defined I chose the Sheriff’s Office because it seemed simple enough. But since this is Philly, what I got instead was a hot cup of scandal sprinkled with un petit peu of political cronyism, especially over the past couple of decades. But let’s not start there; let’s start in 1682.
According to the pre-Constitution framework of Philadelphia’s government, the “free-men” of the counties got together each year to elect “a double number of persons to serve for sheriff…” The Governor would then select, at his pleasure, one of those two elected persons to be that year’s High Sheriff. In 17th Century Philadelphia, no sheriff could serve longer than three consecutive years, and couldn’t be elected again for four years afterward.
(Fun fact: This same process was also used to elect coroners. And if the sheriff died during his term, the coroner was automatically promoted to High Sheriff. Who better to reach for that flintlock than the county medical examiner, right?)
The Sheriff’s Office of 2017 is a bit different than the High Sheriff’s office of 1682. Today, the Sheriff’s Office is mainly responsible for the physical security of courthouses (buildings, judges, juries, defendants, etc.) and “Sheriff Sales”—public auctions where properties that have been foreclosed are sold off.
Also, those strict term limits, which seemed so important to Philadelphians of 1682—they’ve been jettisoned. Sheriffs are still elected, but to four-year terms with the possibility of immediate reelection. Our current sheriff, Jewell Williams, a former state representative, was elected in 2012 and is serving his second term. Our sheriff before that, John Green, served for nearly 23 straight years (1988-2010). That’s long enough to make our Philly forefathers drop their hasty puddings in disbelief. (Green was also the first African American sheriff in Philadelphia history, so that probably wouldn’t have helped their pudding grips either.)
Since at least the mid-1980s, Philly sheriffs have fared poorly. So how is our current sheriff doing? There does seem to be greater transparency, community outreach, and streamlining going on under Jewell Williams.
Before being elected sheriff, John Green was a police sergeant who had served as the president of the Guardian Civic League, an organization of black police officers. He was generally seen as an honest guy with outward compassion for homeowners who were being foreclosed on. Which is important since a substantial part of the sheriff’s duties is overseeing sales of homes after they go into default.
At least, that was the case until 2009, when City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report that showed Green was misappropriating real-estate sales and had charged more than $6 million dollars in bogus fees to the city. In 2010, Green resigned, exiting the state for Florida as charges of corruption began to mount. Three years later, Mayor Nutter’s administration sued him and an accomplice—businessman James Davis—for violating state ethics laws., And in 2015, he was formally indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for conspiracy, bribery, and fraud.
Since at least the mid-1980s, Philly sheriffs have fared poorly. So how is our current sheriff doing? There does seem to be greater transparency, community outreach, and streamlining going on under Jewell Williams. The sheriff participates in a monthly radio show (The Sheriff’s Roundup) on 900AM-WURD to publicize initiatives. One of the more recent programs was the Valentine’s Day “Gift of Real Love,” where you could get a free gun lock just by stopping into Williams’ office. Considering that in the United States accidental shootings by children result in a death every other day, that’s a gift we can certainly endorse.
As far as streamlining goes, the Sheriff’s Office responded to The Citizen’s inquiries by saying that a “Jewell System” has been created since 2012 to integrate accounting, front desk duties, and payment services.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report that showed former Sheriff John Green was misappropriating real-estate sales and had charged more than $6 million dollars in bogus fees to the city. In 2010, Green resigned, exiting the state for Florida as charges of corruption began to mount.
Questions regarding excess overtime pay and solicitation of funds from employees have been raised about Sheriff Williams’ administration, but nothing that has moved federal investigators. “You get singled out because of the color of your skin,” offered Williams (who is African American) in one radio interview.
Significantly improved under Williams is a taskforce called D.A.R.T. While this may sound like a cool new Marvel investigative team, it actually stands for Defense Asset Recovery Team. If the bank forecloses on your home, it may be turned over to the Sheriff’s Office to be offered at public auction (the aforementioned Sheriff Sale). After the property is sold and all the liabilities and debts settled, the former owner may be entitled to what is left over from the sale.
“In previous administrations most of these excessive funds were never returned to the defendants,” states the sheriff’s website in a disturbingly nonchalant manner. “The DART unit has been more aggressive in validating which defendants are eligible to receive a DART payment and connecting with those individuals to put a check in their hands.” According to Joe Blake, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, close to $11 million of unclaimed funds have been returned to Philadelphians since Williams took office in 2012.
So were our Philly forefathers right to place strict term limits on the office of the High Sheriff? Abuses of power and favoritism certainly found their way into Sheriff Green’s two decades in office. Shaking off the corruption of the past has been an “uphill battle,” said Blake. “But our number one job is getting people’s money back.” $11 million isn’t a bad start. And hey, the sheriff will even throw in a free gun lock that you can re-gift for virtually any occasion (steel is the traditional eleventh-year anniversary gift, after all. Really).
If your home was sold at a Sheriff’s Sale, you can file a claim here to receive unclaimed funds.
If you’re interested in buying a home at a Sheriff’s Sale, you can find more information here.Header photo: Kim Siever, via Flickr