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Sheriff Jewell Williams faces three primary challengers amid harassment scandal

Two former sheriff’s deputies and a former Philadelphia police officer are aiming to oust Williams.

(Clockwise from top left) Sheriff Jewell Williams, and Democratic opponents for his post Rochelle Bilal, Malika Rahman, and Larry King Sr.
(Clockwise from top left) Sheriff Jewell Williams, and Democratic opponents for his post Rochelle Bilal, Malika Rahman, and Larry King Sr.Read moreStaff (custom credit)

When Jewell Williams took over as Philadelphia sheriff in 2012, he inherited an office with a $13 million budget and about 230 employees that was in the middle of a federal investigation. He promised transparency and reform.

Since then, the budget has doubled, and there are 410 authorized employees. Williams did prohibit office employees or contractors from buying properties at sheriff’s sales and banned cash payments. But he also gave professional services contracts to campaign contributors and solicited campaign donations from his employees.

Still, no Democrat challenged him in 2015 and he was reelected. Since then, though, Williams has been embroiled in three different cases alleging sexual harassment. Two have been settled and one is pending.

Williams, 61, has vehemently denied all three allegations and said he did not approve the settlements the state and city made. But in the #MeToo era, he has faced backlash: The Democratic City Committee reversed its decision to endorse Williams; Mayor Jim Kenney and some City Council members have called for him to resign.

As he runs for a third term in the May 21 primary, Williams faces three Democratic challengers. Two former sheriff’s deputies, Malika Rahman and Larry King Sr., and former Philadelphia Police Officer Rochelle Bilal, are aiming to oust him. (No Republican is running.)

In addition to demanding his resignation, the three opponents say Williams has mismanaged the office by running up overtime costs, not doing enough to prevent people from losing their homes to foreclosure, and taking campaign money from his employees.

The Sheriff’s Office is an independently elected office charged with court security, transporting prisoners to court, and running monthly sheriff’s sales of delinquent properties. In recent years, Williams added other responsibilities: serving warrants and guarding City Council and the new Family Courthouse.

Williams said the office more than pays for itself with the delinquent tax payments it collects.

“I did nothing but make sure city of Philadelphia gets their monies,” Williams said during an interview with The Inquirer’s editorial board. “We’re up to $61 million this year of giving the city their money.”

His opponents, however, have concerns about the entire sale process. Bilal, a former Philadelphia police officer who is president of the Guardian Civic League, wants to prevent homes from even going to sale.

“I’m working on trying to keep families in their homes and not spending all that money advertising to sell people’s homes” Bilal, 62, said, referring to the sheriff’s $6 million budget to advertise sales in various newspapers. She instead wants to pay for community programs to help “distressed” families.

Rahman, who had worked as a deputy since 2012 and quit in December to take on the boss, would like to provide better resources to prevent evictions of renters.

“People are being displaced because of evictions,” said Rahman, 32. “If we can provide them with resources prior to [eviction] with information, then we do us a service overall.”

And King, who retired as a deputy before Williams became sheriff, said he is concerned about the fees tacked on to the sale of a delinquent property, paid by the owner whose home is being foreclosed. The fees include advertising costs and lunch for the sheriff’s staff working the sales.

“I believe there needs to be a moratorium until everything is thoroughly investigated as to what is going on with these sheriff sales,” said King, 63.

Williams’ predecessor, Sheriff John Green, pleaded guilty last month to felony charges that he steered $35 million in contracts to a campaign contributor who also gave him gifts, including home renovations and a no-interest loan.

During his interview with The Inquirer editorial board, Williams said he still lives in the same North Philadelphia rowhouse he has for decades and hasn’t taken gifts, as Green did.

One of his largest annual professional service contracts, for $745,000, is with City Line Abstract, a title company, which is run by frequent campaign contributor Andrew L. Miller. Williams said he didn’t know who Miller was.

“Have you looked at the mayor’s? People who do bids with the city and how much money they give? See, that’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “I don’t even know these people.”

Other contracts have also gone to campaign contributors. Williams has also come under fire for soliciting and accepting campaign donations from his own employees. His annual fund-raiser, which doubles as a birthday party, is well-attended by staffers.

“No one is being pressured” to give, he said.

Rahman, who donated to Williams’ birthday fund-raiser during her tenure at the office, said it is part of the culture to contribute to the boss’ birthday party and campaign. All three challengers said they would end the tradition.

The Committee of Seventy, along with others groups, has argued for the abolishment of the office, in part because of its entanglement in politics but also because it says the duties could be picked up by the courts, police and other existing government bodies.

Williams said he has improved the office and that “everything we do is fully transparent.”

When Williams came into office, he installed cameras and purchased a new accounting system named JEWELL to better keep track of sheriff’s sale receipts. But he quickly drew controversy.

During his first budget hearing as sheriff, Williams asked for a $3.5 million increase to hire more deputies and purchase new cars, especially a pursuit vehicle for himself. He has awarded contracts outside of the city’s procurement practice of having the finance and law departments sign off.

Despite doubling his budget and adding staff, Williams’ office consistently exceeds its overtime budget. He is expected to spend $6 million on overtime this year, nearly $4 million over budget.

Williams blames the overtime on 50 vacancies in the office, traffic on I-95, and judges keeping juries late.

During his fiscal year 2020 budget hearing before City Council last week, in which Williams requested $27 million , Councilman Allan Domb pointed out that the number of prisoners transported annually by the sheriff’s office had dropped 40 percent.

Williams said it’s more complicated and went through the deputies’ schedule and what could happen if a jail goes into lockdown or if the deputies are delayed by traffic on the way to court.

“If you deploy your people fairly, you won’t have as much overtime,” Bilal said. Rahman and King agreed.

Bilal had her own brush with controversy when she was at the Philadelphia Police Department. She retired in 2013 amid an investigation into a second job she had with Colwyn Borough. Bilal said she was not double-dipping.

Despite the rhetoric, Williams’ three opponents have raised little money and other than attending various candidate forums are not running visible campaigns. (Williams has skipped most forums so far.)

Rahman said that people want change but are perhaps apprehensive for their own personal reasons.

“It’s very hard step outside of that because people’s families depend on politics. That’s the reality,” she said. “They get their friends jobs, their cousins jobs, their neighbors jobs. ... They are fearful that if I go this way that there will be negative consequences because that has happened in the past.”