Inspector General: Philadelphia developer backed by Council President Darrell Clarke ‘took advantage’ of flawed city process for ‘private gain’
City officials say they have since fixed several shortcomings in the land-disposition process
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he was helping a young African American developer in an industry dominated by wealthy white men when he directed taxpayer-owned land to Shawn Bullard in a no-bid sale.
Bullard, a former NFL linebacker with a history of building code violations, said he was just negotiating the best price when he purchased the prime real estate near Temple University in 2016 below market value, as reported by The Inquirer in February.
But a report released on Wednesday by the city’s Office of the Inspector General found that Bullard exploited shortcomings in the land-sale process to secure a sweetheart deal on vacant lots to build market-rate housing.
“Despite some of Bullard’s representations about housing diversity and affordability, the project now looks entirely different.… He increased the number of units, failed to achieve his commitment to antidiscrimination, blocked [Redevelopment Authority] inspections, and is currently advertising ‘penthouses’ for rent at the location,” according to the inspector general’s report.
“In short,” the report continues, “Bullard took advantage of the city’s land disposition process for his own private gain.”
Bullard, 38, did not respond to a request for comment.
Officials in the administration of Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday that the city has corrected several flaws in the land-sale process and is putting measures in place to make more transparent the way public land is sold and developed.
The Inquirer reported this year that Bullard, a former reality TV dating-show contestant who is known online as “Zaddy” and “Mr. Bigg,” acquired four properties on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near Temple for $370,000, or $92,500 each. Similar lots in the area were selling for two to three times that amount.
The city had ordered an independent appraisal, which placed the value of the properties at $495,000 in 2015.
But when the Redevelopment Authority board approved the sale in June 2016, the “fact sheet” for the deal stated incorrectly that the $370,000 price had been “established through an independent appraisal.”
“The fact sheet stated that the price was based on a fair-market appraisal. That’s what the board voted on,” Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development, said Wednesday. “Then we find out that wasn’t exactly valid.”
The fact sheet also stated that the land was being sold to Bullard “at the direction of the councilperson,” referring to Clarke.
Clarke had written a letter of support for Bullard that effectively shut out other interested buyers because, by law, the sale of city-owned land must be approved by Council. Through the practice known as “councilmanic prerogative,” Council members such as Clarke essentially control the development of public land in their districts.
The price reduction in the Bullard sale should have required a vote from what was then the city’s Real Estate Review Committee. But the inspector general’s report found that a Redevelopment Authority staffer had quietly circumvented the committee and cut $125,000 off the appraised value after Bullard argued that his inability to obtain a zoning variance would reduce the value of the property.
The report noted that the discount was “off-the-cuff, undocumented, and informal,” and was “unsupported by any comparable market research.”
Fadullon said Wednesday that city officials have been unable to determine exactly why the required price-adjustment process was circumvented.
Emails obtained by The Inquirer show that Bullard was insistent on purchasing the lots below fair market value.
“I will not back down or off these properties they are mine to buy!” Bullard emailed a Redevelopment Authority official in January 2015, copying a Clarke staffer.
Clarke’s office initially insisted that he and his staff were barely involved in the deal and had no role in the pricing. But he backtracked after being confronted with new emails showing that his staffers had forwarded Bullard’s request for a price reduction and were informed of the off-the-books price negotiations.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Clarke, Joe Grace, wrote in an email: "As plainly stated in the executive summary of the Inspector General’s report, no evidence of wrongdoing was found on the part of any employee in the Council President’s office.”
Three years after the sale, Bullard is in default on the project because he made unapproved changes to its size and scope, according to Angel Rodriguez, executive director of the Philadelphia Land Bank. Rodriguez said Wednesday that Bullard has also failed to comply with an Economic Opportunity Plan designed to ensure that a portion of the construction work goes to minorities and women. Rodriguez said the city is working with Bullard to put him into compliance.
In July, Philadelphia Magazine reported that a 33-year-old consultant had accused Bullard of rape. Bullard denied it, telling the magazine: "I didn’t even have sex with her. She’s mad because she got rejected. I brought her down to do some work, and she started leading a fantasy life of being with me.” A Philadelphia police spokesperson said Wednesday that the department’s Special Victims Unit was investigating the matter.
The inspector general’s report criticized the city’s “opaque" and convoluted land-disposition process, as well as the perception that Council members can exert political pressure on land sales behind closed doors.
“The only thing that may shed light on future property transactions like this, and inform the broader discussion of city land disposition, is maximum transparency,” the report states.
Fadullon said Wednesday that it is unlikely that a sale similar to Bullard’s could happen today. Most city-owned land is now sold through a competitive process, except for when there is a public benefit, such as affordable housing, a community garden, or a recreation center.
The city has also taken steps to streamline the process, setting time limits for when a deal must be closed and a construction project completed. Additionally, the city is preparing to roll out an online dashboard that will enable the public to see who purchased a property and for what use.
Grace, the council president’s spokesperson, noted that reforms were “the subject of substantial work by Council President Clarke, Councilmember Quinones Sanchez, Council staff, city housing officials, and the Mayor’s office, over several years.”