A high-ranking official in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office says in a lawsuit that Sheriff Jewell Williams encouraged him to kill himself four years ago and offered guidance “on how to properly do it.” The lawsuit was filed Friday, two weeks after a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot himself at his desk.

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, Chief Inspector Richard Verrecchio, 52, a 27-year veteran of the office, alleges that Williams, who is African American, discriminated against him because he is white. The suicide suggestion came in autumn 2015, Verrecchio’s lawyer Steven T. Auerbach said Monday.

“Appearing visibly depressed as to how he was treated in the office, Sheriff Williams encouraged plaintiff to kill himself,” Verrecchio’s lawsuit says. “Sheriff Williams then offered him guidance on how to properly do it and that his suicide would be rewarded through a posthumous promotion to chief deputy, and that he would shut down Broad Street by giving him a lavish funeral.”

After suggesting that he kill himself, Williams allegedly “said a ‘nursery rhyme’ within earshot of plaintiff about plaintiff’s death.”

The lawsuit also says Williams blamed Verrecchio for failing to prevent a woman in the office from filing a sexual harassment suit against Williams that resulted in a $460,000 settlement.

In an email Monday, Williams, 61, said he “vehemently” denied Verrecchio’s allegations and criticized the timing of the lawsuit.

“I would never encourage that any employee bring harm to themselves or others,” Williams wrote. “In fact, I find the timing of this undated accusation in a lawsuit filed just two weeks after a beloved employee’s suicide as an utterly shameful act of disrespect and grossly inappropriate. It’s offensive that Verrecchio would use someone’s unfortunate death for his personal financial gain.”

Early on June 7, Deputy Sheriff Dante Austin, the office’s first openly gay deputy and its first LGBTQ liaison, took his life by gunfire at his 15th-floor desk. Austin, 27, had been battling depression, his sister Amber Kee told The Inquirer. Williams did not attend Austin’s June 15 funeral, which was attended by law officers from as far away as Chicago.

Verrecchio’s lawsuit is the latest formal complaint against Williams, a two-term incumbent who was defeated by former Philadelphia Police Officer and black civic leader Rochelle Bilal in the Democratic primary election May 21.

In addition to the lawsuit settled in April for $460,000, Williams’ alleged conduct is cited in two ongoing lawsuits and two complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. He and supervisors whom he appointed have been accused of sexual harassment, retaliation, racism, and creating a toxic work environment.

Williams “harbored certain anti-white prejudices that he announced in and around the office on numerous occasions,” including that he did not trust whites, thought they were devils, and preferred hiring blacks over whites, Verrecchio’s lawsuit says.

Dan Gross, a spokesperson for Williams, disputed the allegation. “I have never heard Sheriff Williams use any kind of anti-white language, nor have I heard anyone report that he has used anti-white, derogatory language,” Gross said.

Gross said Monday that morale in the Sheriff’s Office could have been affected by uncertainty over jobs in the evolving office administration and shock over Austin’s suicide.

“Many employees of the Sheriff’s Office have worked here for the entirety of Sheriff Williams’ administration, and some for much longer, and were instrumental in the successes and reform brought forth by Sheriff Williams in the past eight years,” Gross said.

“When he lost reelection in May, some staffers may have become uncertain or concerned about the future under a new sheriff. Furthermore, two weeks after the election, the office suffered a tragedy in the sudden death of a beloved colleague and friend, Dante Austin. Naturally, people remain very emotional.”

Gross had no comment on why Williams did not attend the funeral.

Williams said in his statement Monday that “any intimation of anti-white discrimination is disproven” by the fact that he recently had promoted Verrecchio to chief inspector of the Real Estate Division, which he said “represents half the functions of the Sheriff’s Office.”

The sheriff said he intends to “litigate the false allegations in a court of law in front of a jury of my peers.”

‘Clenched fists’

Verrecchio’s lawsuit follows by one week an EEOC complaint filed June 14 in which Deputy Chief Jennifer Algarin-Barnes alleges that Williams blamed her for his primary loss, publicly humiliating her and acting hostile toward her because she had refused to campaign for him.

“Sheriff Williams announced to members of the office that the reason he lost the primary was because complainant didn’t ‘speak up for him’ to the media — a ridiculous assertion given the margin of his defeat,” Algarin-Barnes says in her complaint.

“The environment created by Sheriff Williams … was openly hostile with Sheriff Williams frequently appearing at complainant’s workspace with clenched fists, glares, and speaking in a loud, pronounced voice,” the document says.

Deputy Sheriff Dante Austin is saluted before his funeral service at the Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany in Center City on June 15. Austin was a major LGBTQ community activist and Army veteran who shot himself at work at the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office on June 7, 2019.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Deputy Sheriff Dante Austin is saluted before his funeral service at the Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany in Center City on June 15. Austin was a major LGBTQ community activist and Army veteran who shot himself at work at the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office on June 7, 2019.

Williams, a former state legislator, became sheriff in 2012 and was reelected in 2015. Indications of problems in his office began to surface in November 2017, when The Inquirer reported that two female employees had filed suits accusing him of sexual harassment.

The article noted that a third woman, an assistant to Williams when he was a legislator, had previously settled a sexual harassment suit. Mayor Jim Kenney and others called for Williams to resign, but he said he’d done nothing wrong.

In the April settlement, Deputy Sheriff Dolores Ramos received $460,000 from the city after she alleged that she had been subjected to “severe sexual harassment by her supervisors and retaliated against” for complaining.

Her supervisor, Stephen Postell, whom Williams had promoted to deputy sergeant in January 2017, was arrested in March 2018 and charged with indecent exposure, indecent assault, and simple assault related to Ramos’ allegations. Postell, 44, who was fired after the arrest, is scheduled for trial July 23, according to court records.

In May, Monte Guess, a deputy sheriff assigned to the Defendants Asset Recovery Team, filed a federal employment discrimination lawsuit alleging that Williams had spread false accusations that he had sexually harassed an employee, was an FBI informant, was gay, and was a pimp.

In January, Marlaina Williams, a former employee of the Sheriff’s Office, settled a lawsuit for $127,500 claiming that repeated sexual harassment by the sheriff — to whom she is not related — rendered her emotionally broken and caused her to quit her job.

In addition, Deputy Sheriff Marquet Parsons has filed an EEOC harassment and retaliation complaint against the sheriff, according to Auerbach, the Narberth lawyer who also represents Guess, Marlaina Williams, Algarin-Barnes, and Verrecchio.

In addition to the allegations in the lawsuits, sources in the Sheriff’s Office said that since losing the primary election Williams has been stirring unrest within the office by changing some employees’ work schedules against their will.

In a statement provided by Gross, Williams denied the allegation.

“No one has been reassigned or transferred, although management has the right to do so as staffing needs may require. We run a professional office and follow the rules of the collective bargaining agreement with the FOP,” Williams said.

"In fact, since I took office in 2012 there have not been any formal grievances filed by the union against the Sheriff’s Office.”

The Sheriff’s Office has an annual budget of $25 million and 408 employees, 314 of whom are in uniform.