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Council President Darrell Clarke backtracks on no-bid land sale statement after release of new emails

After a Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority blocked the discounted sale, Clarke staffers stepped in.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke said his office is tightening its policies to ensure his staff does not attempt to influence the price of city-owned land sales.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke said his office is tightening its policies to ensure his staff does not attempt to influence the price of city-owned land sales.Read moreMichael Bryant/Staff Photographer

When The Inquirer reported in February that the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority had sold city-owned properties to City Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s favored developer at $125,000 below the appraised value, Clarke insisted he and his staff were barely involved and had no role in the pricing.

Now, after being confronted by newly discovered emails, Clarke has changed his story.

The records, which the city’s Law Department provided to The Inquirer on May 17 in response to a Right-to-Know request, show that Clarke’s legislative counsel, Jeffery Young, told North Philadelphia developer Shawn Bullard that Clarke’s office would look into the pricing — contrary to what Clarke had previously said.

The emails also show that Michael Koonce, Clarke’s director of special projects, not only forwarded Bullard’s request for a much lower price to the PRA, but that both Young and Koonce were informed of the PRA’s off-the-books price negotiations with Bullard, 37, a former NFL linebacker.

Through a spokesperson, Clarke said he would discipline staff. “It is explicitly against 5th District office policy for staff to attempt to influence property appraisals or sale price-setting, period,” spokesperson Jane Roh said in a statement.

Questioned Thursday in Council’s caucus room, Clarke declined to elaborate.

The emails also reveal that a senior official at the PRA acknowledged the four lots on Cecil B. Moore Avenue — prime location near Temple University — were worth more than the below-market price that Bullard would later pay.

“We have multiple interested buyers, he is building market rate units, and my guess is that if I competitively listed we would get over $500,000,” Tania Nikolic, then a PRA deputy executive director, wrote to Koonce on March 15, 2016.

That amount closely matched the city’s most recent independent appraisal, in 2015, of $495,000, and the assessment by the PRA’s own in-house appraiser.

Nonetheless, in April 2016, Nikolic told Bullard by email the city would sell the land to him for “the appraised price of $370,000.” City officials have not been able to explain the discount.

When the PRA’s board members approved the sale in June 2016, their “fact sheet” stated the land was being sold to Bullard “at the direction of the Councilperson” and the price was “established through an independent appraisal.”

Sales of comparable lots in the area, and interviews with developers, Realtors, and property managers, suggest that in 2016 the four lots could have fetched $600,000 to $1 million through competitive bidding. Bullard is building student housing and luxury apartments on the site.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has sought to limit the influence Council members have over the sale of city land, after reports about other underpriced, no-bid deals and land flips. In March, he told Council that most future sales are to be conducted through a competitive process.

The city Inspector General’s Office, which investigates fraud, corruption, and misconduct, is looking into the Bullard sale.

Secret negotiations

In mid-December 2015, Bullard was told by Brian Abernathy, then the PRA’s executive director, that the city would not sell him the lots at his requested price of $124,000, an outdated figure that been attached to the properties years earlier by the city’s automated system.

“You can either move forward at the more recent value or we can close out your interest,” Abernathy wrote. “Please let us know by COB tomorrow.” Abernathy left the PRA later that month.

Bullard quickly turned to Young, Clarke’s legislative counsel, for help. Bullard e-mailed him the next day: “Hello Jeffery. Good seeing you last night bro. I’m hoping your office will push my offer of 75k-80k per lot.”

Clarke’s office said Young, a lawyer, never replied to Bullard, but newly obtained e-mails show that Young, in fact, did. On Feb. 2, 2016, he told Bullard that Koonce had contacted PRA’s appraiser: "We are waiting on information on how they came up with that price.”

Bullard replied a half-hour later: “So the number your office was comfortable with is not happening?”

Clarke has said he backed Bullard because he wants to create economic opportunities to up-and-coming developers of color.

Bullard, Koonce, and Young did not respond to requests for comment. PRA officials have declined to comment.

But in a recent Instagram post, Bullard acknowledged he bought the property for less than the appraised price and thanked Clarke and other officials for their help.

“Even a rookie first time homeowner knows to negotiate and not to pay for the ‘appraised price,’ of any real estate,” he wrote. “So why would I be any different?"

“I appreciate the [PRA] and council President and district working with me on the price,” he added.

Roh said Young has denied Bullard’s claim on Instagram that Clarke or his staffers had influenced the price.

Bullard, who enjoyed some fame in 2015 when he appeared on the reality TV dating show Match Made in Heaven, has argued he was entitled to buy the lots for $124,000 because he had expressed interest before other developers and had paid a 10 percent down payment on that amount to the PRA in November 2014.

But in December 2014, City Council updated its land disposition policy to prevent the sale of underpriced land. The new policy required appraisals for no-bid sales ordered by Council members. Those sales — and any price modifications — were required to be voted on by the Real Estate Review Committee, composed of officials from the city’s landholding agencies and the Mayor’s Integrity Office.

Officials from those agencies say they have been unable to locate any records pertaining to the Bullard purchase.

Tony Payton Jr., a lobbyist and former state representative, helped Bullard negotiate the purchase price, the emails show. In March 2016, for example, Payton sent an offer of $320,000 on Bullard’s behalf to a PRA official and Young, the Clarke aide.

In an interview Wednesday, Payton said he had helped Bullard as a friend and was not compensated. He said Bullard was shortchanged because the PRA “jacked up the price on him" from $124,000.

“He still got raped,” Payton said.

Payton said he could not recall how the $370,000 figure was reached.

“Who made that decision?” he said. “I can’t point to a single person.”

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