The two top deputies to outgoing Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams have been quietly pushing a plan since May 30 — nine days after he lost his bid for a third term — to strip the office of control of contracts worth millions before a new sheriff arrives in January.
The plan would have turned key functions over to the city administration, but Williams disavowed the effort Tuesday after The Inquirer raised questions about it, rescinding the proposal made by Chief Deputy Ben Hayllar and Undersheriff Joe Vignola.
Williams, in a statement, said he was working "to ensure a smooth transition” for the woman who defeated him in a four-candidate Democratic primary election, Rochelle Bilal.
“I have assured the incoming sheriff and her transition team that I am not making these changes, as she should have input into final recommendations about any changes,” Williams said. “But I am not going to have a transition meeting through the media.”
The proposal would have deprived the next sheriff of a key source of political power, supervision of an account that collects millions of dollars each year from sales of foreclosed properties and the placement of advertising for those sales.
Bilal, a former Philadelphia police officer who faces no challengers in the Nov. 5 general election, declined to comment. City officials said she raised questions about the proposal in June.
The City Controller’s Office, in a letter Thursday to Hayllar and Rob Dubow, Mayor Jim Kenney’s finance director, called for a halt to any proposed changes “until our office conducts an audit” of Sheriff’s Office finances.
A ‘transition of functions’ is pitched
Hayllar and Vignola, in a June 4 letter to Dubow, recapped the “transition of functions” they proposed in the May 30 meeting. Williams was copied on that letter, which was also sent to City Solicitor Marcel Pratt and the city treasurer.
The pitch did not specify which department in the administration would have taken charge of the lucrative advertising for sheriff’s sales, including “the choice of advertisers, placements of the legally required ad, confirmation of their placements, and payment.”
The Inquirer last year reported how the Sheriff’s Office spends millions of dollars to place ads for sheriff’s sales in community and niche newspapers across Philadelphia, using fees imposed during foreclosures, often paid by property owners at risk of losing their homes.
The Sheriff’s Office is also responsible for courthouse security in the city and transporting prisoners, functions that were not included in the proposal.
In addition, Hayllar and Vignola offered control of the Sheriff’s Office account that takes in and disperses $150 million to $190 million annually from sheriff’s sales, along with the authority to select the title company in those transactions.
They also asked the city to take over the office’s information technology functions, and to hire the sheriff’s chief technology officer and an employee who distributes money to debtors after sheriff’s sales proceeds are used to pay off mortgages, utility bills, overdue taxes, and other debts.
And they requested that the “heart of the sheriff’s financial operation” survive the transition. Created by the chief technology officer, the system’s full name is the Judicial Enforcement Writ Execution Legal Ledger. That mouthful is shortened in the office to “JEWELL,” as in the sheriff’s first name.
They also requested an “exit audit” conducted by a politically connected firm, Lexington Technologies Inc., citing that company’s work auditing the office when it was held by former Sheriff John Green. That audit was performed for former City Controller Alan Butkovitz.
Green resigned in 2010 and was sentenced on Aug. 1 to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud while in office.
City controller calls a timeout
Kellan White, first deputy to City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, said in his letter Thursday to Hayllar and Dubow that the proposal “deserves serious discussion” but has to wait for the audit.
“It is our obligation as public servants to ensure that taxpayer money is fully accounted for, and we believe that transferring these accounts prior to a proper and complete audit is not in the best interest of the City of Philadelphia or taxpayers,” White wrote.
Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff, on Monday said the city was “specifically focused” on more transparency in how the Sheriff’s Office takes in and spends money, particularly when it comes to the awarding of contracts, which does not currently follow city regulations for bidding.
For years, Philadelphia mayors have taken that position about finances at the scandal-plagued Sheriff’s Office.
Engler did not embrace the other proposals pitched by Hayllar and Vignola before Williams rescinded them. “I’m not aware of any ongoing action on those specific proposals,” Engler said.