Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams showed up at his first foreclosure sale Tuesday and unveiled an executive order to prohibit sheriff's employees or contractors, or their family members, from bidding on foreclosed properties.
"Right now my job is to clean this sheriff's office up, make sure we pass the smell test on everything that we do," Williams told reporters. "I don't think having employees bid on properties at this time is a good thing."
Too many employees in the Sheriff's Office have access to inside information that could be helpful at auctions, he said.
"Our mission is to make sure that the office is transparent, make sure that we're accountable to the public and to the folks who put their money in the Sheriff's Office to bid for properties," Williams said.
Asked for a copy of the executive order, Williams' spokeswoman, Harriet Lessy, provided the following text: "No employee . . . including deputies, administrative staff and/or contractors to the office, are permitted to bid on a property listed for sale today or at any time in the future. That includes, too, members of the immediate family of anyone employed or anyone that resides in the same household as anyone employed by the Office of the Sheriff."
On paper, the new restrictions are significantly stronger than those imposed by Sheriff John Green, who ran the office from 1988 until the end of 2010.
But they do not address the main conflict-of-interest questions that have plagued the sheriff's real estate operations: personal real estate transactions between the sheriff's real estate personnel and the mortgage companies and speculators who frequently buy properties at the sheriff's auctions.
In January 2006, shortly after a report in the Philadelphia Daily News questioned the personal real estate dealings of Darrell Stewart, who ran the sheriff's auctions, Green adopted a new policy prohibiting his real estate personnel from bidding on properties.
The prohibition extended to employees who processed legal documents or other paperwork related to sheriff's sales.
But Green allowed the rest of his employees to participate in the sheriff's auctions and decided it was OK for even his real estate personnel to buy properties from mortgage companies and speculators who pick up real estate at sheriff's sales.
Green retired at the end of 2010 and was replaced by his longtime chief of staff, Barbara Deeley. At the end of her first week in office, she transferred Stewart to a job working at the city prisons. He has since resigned.