A former city employee with a name prominent in Philadelphia politics admitted in federal court Wednesday that he solicited bribes from those seeking assistance in obtaining municipal permits.

Jeffrey Blackwell, step-grandson of former City Councilmember Jannie L. Blackwell, sought payoffs from customers of a contracting business he ran on the side while he was employed as a deputy director in the City Controller’s Office.

He told U.S. District Judge Chad F. Kenney on Wednesday that he used his position to wring more than $22,000 in bribes from homeowners and business people seeking an inside track with the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

In exchange for Blackwell’s guilty plea to bribery and tax fraud charges, prosecutors agreed to recommend a prison term of roughly two years at his Dec. 3 sentencing hearing. Blackwell, 47, of Roxborough, will also have to pay more than $28,000 in restitution.

Blackwell’s attorney, Rossman D. Thompson, did not immediately return requests for comment after Wednesday’s hearing.

“Philadelphians deserve public employees who do their jobs honestly and faithfully,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said in a statement. “Blackwell did not meet this standard — instead choosing to use his public position to extort money for himself. Now he will face the consequences.”

The former councilmember — who lost the seat she held representing West Philadelphia for nearly three decades to Jamie Gauthier last year — has referred to the younger Blackwell as “like a son,” but said she did not recommend him for his job in the Controller’s Office. Their relationship stems from her 1972 marriage to the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucien Blackwell.

Former Philadelphia City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell pictured in 2019.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Former Philadelphia City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell pictured in 2019.

Jeffrey Blackwell’s nine-year tenure under then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz ended in 2015, when he resigned following a Fox29 report that raised questions about his side contracting work. Several customers said Blackwell had cheated them out of money while using his position in city government to earn their trust.

Prosecutors say Blackwell leaned on his government ties not only to extort customers but also to draw in new business, promising at least one of his victims that he could get anything needed “at a price.” Vowing he could smooth the regulatory process for a furniture seller who needed permits for temporary storage while renovating his business, or a pair of body-shop owners seeking a city contract to install decals on police vehicles, he encouraged prospective clients to choose his contracting business over less well-connected companies.

Most of the five victims whose stories were highlighted in filings accompanying Blackwell’s plea Wednesday said Blackwell never delivered on anything — including permits for home renovations and plumbing work, and a license to sell used cars. And yet, IRS investigators believe he managed to take in roughly $15,000 in bribes in 2014 alone.

Blackwell’s plea came after a years-long investigation by the FBI, the IRS and the City Controller’s Office, now led by Rebecca Rhynhart. He was first charged June 2019 with tax violations that included falsely claiming the 70-year-old father-in-law of his tax preparer as a dependent on his 2013 tax forms, and failing to file tax returns in the following two years. The bribery counts came in a superseding indictment a month later.

Rhynhart has said she has overhauled the investigative staff of the city’s primary auditing arm since taking the helm in 2017 to ensure a higher standard of professionalism.

“This case is one of a bad actor who abused his position and took advantage of the system for his own personal gain,” she said Wednesday. “When offenders, like this one, are held accountable, we’re taking an important step toward restoring the public’s trust in government, and committing to the idea that Philadelphia works for everyone, not just the connected.”