New sheriff Williams promises reform, transparency

The first of several internal changes within the Philadelphia Sheriff’s office took place recently when former Acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley, in consultation with newly sworn-in Sheriff Jewell Williams, fired several non-civil service employees who were holding patronage jobs.

Although the exact number of terminations hasn’t been made public yet, at least 17 people handling foreclosure sales were released. Williams, who is taking over after the retirement of former Sheriff John Green, steps into a city department that has come under increasingly intense scrutiny. Green resigned after 22 years in office amid allegations that he violated city ethics rules. According to an in-depth investigation by the City Controller’s office, Green allegedly allowed two companies owned by friends to squirrel away at least $6.2 million dollars in fees over a six-year period.

“The former Acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley let these people go, but I backed her decisions. Traditionally, this is what happens when a new administration takes over — out with the old and in with the new,” Williams said. Williams has promised a high degree of public transparency in the department and in an earlier interview also promised to axe those employees who had been holding patronage jobs.

“I can tell you right now, there are going to be some major changes in personnel,” Williams said. “Some of the patronage people who are doing a bad job are going to be terminated. If their political patrons have a problem, well, they can come to me. But there are going to be some changes.”

Williams said that new policies will be instituted, including granting the media access to the sheriff sale process.

“We want to open up the entire process to the media,” Williams said. “I’ve been to the Criminal Justice Center and visited the different courtrooms, letting the deputies know there are going to be some changes that will make things easier for them. We’re also in the process of acquiring a new computer system. My goal is to restore public confidence and trust in this department. The different agencies that were in here, that wasn’t under my administration and what’s in the past is the past. But we’ve got some cleaning up to do; we’re looking at some monies in different accounts. Unfortunately, some partnerships have had to be dissolved — but that’s what has to happen when there’s a new administration.”

At the end of 2011, federal investigators filed criminal charges against a former employee of the Sheriff’s office, accusing him and three other people of writing more than $400,000 in fraudulent checks on the department’s accounts.

According to United States Attorney Zane David Memeger, Richard Bell, Robert Rogers, and Jackiem Wright and Reginald Berry were each charged with one count of wire fraud. Bell, who is a former employee of the Sheriff’s Department, was also charged with willfully filing a false federal income tax return.

“Essentially, someone at some point would cash or deposit these checks and the goal was to take the money out and whoever was involved, they would divide the proceeds,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Grieb in a published report.

According to the indictments, Bell was employed in the Accounting Department of the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office. Allegedly, between 2007 and 2010, Bell wrote a series of fraudulent checks that were drawn on bank accounts of the Sheriff’s Office to unauthorized individuals and companies. 

In the indictment against him, Bell allegedly then forwarded over $400,000 of those checks to Rogers. Rogers is accused of cashing those checks that were made payable to himself.

He allegedly forwarded the other checks to other individuals to either cash or deposit. In once instance, Rogers forwarded over $147,000 in checks made payable to one company to Wright and Berry. Wright and Berry then deposited the checks into the company bank account, and withdrew or attempted to withdraw the proceeds. Investigators say that the co-defendants allegedly shared the cash.

If convicted, Bell faces a sentence of 33 to 41 months in prison. Rogers faces a sentence of 27 to 33 months in prison and Wright and Berry each face a sentence of 15 to 21 months in prison.

Jewell Williams is no stranger to the Sheriff’s Office. He served as Chief of Criminal Operations in the Sheriff’s Office from 1994 to 2000. He’s pledged to bring much greater transparency to the department than was evidenced in the past.

“There really aren’t too many problems with the Criminal Operations aspect, but on the real estate side there are some issues,” he said.

In 2010, City Controller Alan Butkovitz raised questions over a failure by the Sheriff’s Office to cooperate with his auditors over requested financial documents. Butkovitz launched a full-scale forensic audit of 11 custodial accounts under the Sheriff's purview estimated at $53 million dollars. 

Williams said his election as sheriff is about shaking up the status quo and bringing much needed reform to the department. Some of the established community programs are going to continue, he said.

“We’re bringing in a new financial person, Ben Hayllar, who was the former finance director for the city under the Rendell Administration. I intend to continue with the Office’s Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention programs and the related town hall meetings,” he said. “We should continue to work with home owners to keep their properties. I think that’s one of the ways to build stability in communities. I also intend to hold the banks accountable for what they aren’t doing in our communities. They spend millions on promotions; we need to start reinvesting that money into the communities where the depositors come from.”

Written by Larry Miller for the Philadelphia Tribune on January 5, 2012.