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Ex-Philly Sheriff’s Office employee sentenced to one year in prison for accepting $40K in bribes

Michael Riverso accepted money from real estate investors who slipped him cash-stuffed greeting cards in the Sheriff's Office lobby or at coffee shops across the city. One explicitly told Riverso: "This is not a Christmas gift."

A sheriff sale notice is taped to a window in May 2009.
A sheriff sale notice is taped to a window in May 2009. Read moreDavid Swanson / File Photograph

A former Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office employee who accepted more than $40,000 in bribes from real estate speculators seeking an edge in the city’s process for selling seized and foreclosed properties was sentenced Thursday to one year in federal prison.

Michael Riverso, 51, admitted giving preferential treatment to sheriff’s sale bidders willing to slip him payoffs between 2011 and 2013.

Before he was sentenced, he apologized to the city and his family.

“For the last six years, this has been a weight on my shoulders that will be alleviated whichever way this is decided,” Riverso said as his lawyer asked U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone to let him go with probation.

When she announced moments later that he would be heading to prison, Riverso hung his head and collapsed on the defense table in disbelief.

“To the extent that there is corruption in local government, it tears at the fabric of society,” the judge said. “The people who are watching this case need to know this type of crime will not go on.”

Riverso is the second defendant — and only Sheriff’s Office employee — to face sentencing in the latest long-running FBI corruption probe at an office that has seen a succession of federal indictments over the years.

In a separate case, former Sheriff John Green was sentenced in August to five years in prison after admitting to taking bribes worth more than $1 million over nine years. And earlier this year, Beetlestone sentenced one of Riverso’s benefactors — Behzad Sabagh — to one month behind bars.

Sheriff Jewell Williams fired Riverso, who worked in the real estate division, after the extent of his crimes became apparent in 2013. But Riverso had made little effort before then to hide the payoffs.

In an interview with FBI agents after his arrest, Riverso recalled one frequent bidder wandering into the real estate department office and handing him a stack of cash. Another passed him hundreds of dollars — sometimes tucked into greeting cards — during their meetings in the lobby of the Sheriff’s Office at 100 S. Broad St.

A third bidder — Gregory Guzman, 47, who also pleaded guilty in the case — told agents he showered Riverso with benefits, such as meals at Le Bec-Fin and South Street’s Serpico, and even offered him marijuana in exchange for special perks.

Prosecutors say Guzman gave Riverso a regular cut of the profits he and his business partner made flipping the houses they bought at sheriff’s sales. And when Guzman delivered a $1,000-plus bribe during a December 2012 meeting at a Queen Village coffee shop, he specifically told Riverso, “This money [is] not a Christmas gift.”

In exchange, Riverso would funnel Guzman and the other bribe-paying bidders lists of properties up for auction before they became available to the public, and fast-tracked deed processing and lien-removal on the properties they purchased.

In some cases, he ignored Sheriff’s Office policies requiring full payment for purchased properties within 60 days of sale. This allowed some of his favored bidders to flip properties they had bought at sheriff’s sale to new buyers before the final bill came due. That way, they never had to put down any of their money before securing their profit.

“They essentially destroyed the concept of an even playing field,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Diviny said in court Thursday. “That fairness is critical to citizens having faith in their public institutions.”

Riverso’s attorney, Fortunato N. Perri Jr., described his client as a “good, decent, kind, caring, and generous” family man who was eager to atone for his crimes and move on with his life.

In addition to his prison term, Beetlestone ordered Riverso to serve one year’s probation upon his release and pay more than $12,000 in restitution to the IRS for failing to report the bribes he received on his taxes.

Court documents reveal another office employee — a real estate division supervisor whom investigators refer to only as “Public Official No. 1” — also accepted bribes with Riverso. That person has not been charged and prosecutors have declined to publicly identify the person.

It is unclear whether the individual is still employed at the Sheriff’s Office.