Rochelle Bilal ran for Philadelphia sheriff in 2019 on a platform of overhauling a scandal-ridden office that for years had been plagued by allegations of financial impropriety and sexual harassment.
One year into her term, Bilal is being sued by three former senior staffers who say they lost their jobs in 2020 after exposing serious wrongdoing — including alleged financial impropriety and sexual harassment.
Sommer Miller, Bilal’s former undersheriff and chief legal officer, and Anitra Paris, former human resources manager, each filed whistle-blower lawsuits in federal court in recent weeks.
Brett Mandel, former chief financial officer, filed a similar lawsuit last year in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, contending that he was ushered out of the building after questioning Bilal’s continued use of “off-budget” spending that circumvented the city’s budgeting process.
Robert McNelly, an attorney representing Paris and Miller, described the Sheriff’s Office as an organization in “crisis.” He said Tuesday that his clients did not want to comment out of fear that they’d be “blackballed” by Bilal and unable to find work.
“They stand by every fact that’s in the complaints,” McNelly said.
Bilal is a former 27-year Philadelphia police veteran who had served as the public safety director in Colwyn Borough, Delaware County. Her spokesperson said Tuesday that the office does not comment on pending litigation involving personnel matters.
The lawsuits by Miller, Paris, and Mandel describe a similar pattern.
According to Miller’s suit, she complained to Bilal of possible theft in the advertising department, overspending, extreme sexual harassment by the then-chief of staff, and unauthorized expenditures from the proceeds of sheriff’s sales.
In retaliation, the suit contends, Bilal stripped Miller of most of her responsibilities and in August she resigned.
The lawsuit states that Miller, a Bala Cynwyd lawyer, “uncovered many practices that needed correcting, as well as several illegal or unethical practices.” But, as she “brought these matters to the attention of the sheriff,” the suit contends, Bilal “would then remove said department from Ms. Miller’s oversight.”
Paris filed her lawsuit in January. She had been terminated in August after refusing Bilal’s requests to hire employees without performing background checks or requiring them to take civil service tests, the suit claims. Bilal also asked her to disclose employee medical information in violation of federal law, and provide employees’ home addresses so Bilal could “have them followed,” according to the suit.
Paris also alleges that she was subject to sexual harassment by Wendell Reed, Bilal’s then-chief of staff, “almost immediately” upon starting the job when he began asking her about her views on polygamy.
According to the lawsuit, on Jan. 10, 2020 Reed “grabbed Ms. Paris and pulled her into the break room, shut the door, turned off the lights and hugged her.” Paris said she told him “‘no,’ pushed him off of her and yelled at him never to touch her like that again and walked out.”
Paris said she formally reported the harassment, then faced retaliation from Bilal and other supervisors. She claims that Reed changed the locks on her office door and filed a false report against her. (Reed, who has since left the office and is named as a defendant in Paris’ case, declined to comment Tuesday.)
Miller, who oversaw the human resources department, said in her suit she advised Bilal “several times” that she “needed to terminate” Reed because he was sexually harassing Paris and other employees. Before long, Miller was no longer in charge of HR — a pattern that Miller said continued from one department to another until her only remaining task was writing requests-for-proposals for tech services.
Miller also contended that Bilal had been monitoring her emails “in real time,” according to the lawsuit.
Mandel, a vocal, good-government advocate, lasted only five weeks as Bilal’s financial chief. He said he was fired after questioning her use of what he described as a multimillion-dollar “slush fund,” as well as flagging expensive contracts for advertising sheriff’s sales. He has said that the high price of ads took proceeds away from some people who’d lost their homes in legal actions.
“So if there’s too much money being spent on advertising, that’s picking the pocket of the former homeowner,” Mandel told The Inquirer in March. He filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in April. That case is ongoing.
Bilal began her term in January 2020 pledging that “change is coming” after “two decades of scandal” under previous Sheriffs Jewell Williams and John Green.
Williams, her immediate predecessor, had been accused in three lawsuits of sexual harassment, which he denied. Green, who served as sheriff from 1988 to 2010, pleaded guilty in 2019 to a bribery-related charge and is serving a five-year federal prison sentence. Excessive spending on advertising and political consulting fees have also long been controversial practices in the office.
The office, which had a $27 million budget and 428 employees in fiscal year 2020, is responsible for conducting court-ordered property sales, as well as courtroom security and prisoner transportation.
An office news release last month listed several improvements during Bilal’s first year. The sheriff noted that she had increased financial accountability, eliminated redundant consultants, improved ethics training, and reduced advertising costs by an estimated $3 million annually.
“It’s been a pleasure building a team, implementing policies to operate the office and creating culture focused on work, safety, and supporting the community,” Bilal said in a January YouTube video highlighting changes in the office. “I look forward to the next three years being as productive as the first year.”
An audit released by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart in November found that the Sheriff’s Office cannot account for more than 200 guns that are supposed to be in its custody. But Rhynhart blamed the problem on Williams and praised Bilal for cooperating with the probe and beginning to take corrective action.
“They left us with a crazy mess, as far as the Sheriff’s Office,” Bilal said at the November news conference, “and not just the armory, trust me.”
Staff writers Chris Brennan and Mensah Dean contributed to this article.