Over the last four years, federal authorities have quietly exposed a long-running bribery scheme involving Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office employees, who in exchange for cash and other perks gave a select group of real estate developers an edge in the competitive business of bidding on properties seized by the city.
The investigation has netted four convictions since 2017 and led to the firing of a key manager from Sheriff Jewell Williams’ staff.
But one official implicated by the FBI probe remains uncharged.
Prosecutors refer to him in court filings only as “Public Official No. 1.” They describe him as an administrator in the Sheriff’s Office’s real estate department, and allege that between 2011 and 2013, he accepted payoffs ranging from cash-stuffed envelopes to a $200 bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. In return, the official gave bribers advance notice of properties being sold and extra time to pay for properties bought.
It remains unclear why federal authorities have not charged him, two years after one of the department’s employees, Michael Riverso, pleaded guilty to corruption charges and implicated “Public Official No. 1” in his crimes.
In court filings in March, prosecutors left little doubt that they believe the official also solicited payoffs while offering buyers special perks.
Bribe-paying bidders paid Riverso and Public Official No. 1 "to gain preferential treatment in purchases of properties at Philadelphia Sheriff’s sales,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christopher Diviny and Sarah L. Grieb wrote.
When The Inquirer sought Williams’ response this week, Paris Washington, deputy chief sheriff, returned the calls on Williams’ behalf. He said the office was unaware that prosecutors had lodged allegations against an unnamed member of the real estate department in the court documents nearly two months ago.
“This is the first time I’m hearing about it,” he said. “But as soon as we hang up the phone, we’re going to take action. … If a person in this office is involved in misconduct of any kind, we will open an investigation on our end immediately.”
Washington said he did not know who Public Official No. 1 might be. Riverso, before he was fired in 2013, reported directly to Rick Tyer, who leads the office’s real estate department, Washington said.
Tyer, who has worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 14 years, did not return phone calls this week. His lawyer, William J. Brennan, declined to comment.
The department Tyer oversees handles one of the Sheriff’s Office’s primary functions — selling off thousands of seized or foreclosed properties each year. The real estate operations have led to scandals under each of Philadelphia’s last three elected sheriffs.
Former Sheriff John Green pleaded guilty last month to accepting gifts worth more than $1 million in exchange for steering the lucrative contracts for placing sheriff’s sale ads in newspapers to a campaign supporter who plied him with bribes.
(His lax auditing controls allowed an employee in another Sheriff’s Office department to embezzle more than $400,000 between 2006 and 2010 — a theft exposed by a federal investigation that led to the convictions of five people.)
Green’s successor, Barbara Deeley — appointed when Green abruptly resigned his post in 2010 — served as one of the government’s star witnesses against him but insisted upon receiving immunity from prosecution before she took the witness stand.
Williams, who rode into office in 2012 vowing to clean up the corruption of the past, has portrayed himself as a reformer who has improved the sheriff’s sale process and opened it up to a wider array of bidders.
Still, his office’s process for selling advertisements for upcoming property sales has drawn recent scrutiny.
And while Williams has not been implicated in the latest federal probe, many of the misdeeds attributed to Riverso — Deeley’s cousin and the only Sheriff’s Office employee charged so far — occurred under Williams’ tenure. Williams swiftly fired Riverso in 2013 when those crimes became apparent.
“He was found not to be in compliance with the procedures of this office,” Washington said. “So, he was released.”
Prosecutors describe Public Official No. 1 as an equal partner in Riverso’s crimes and someone who continued to extend special treatment to bribe-paying bidders after Riverso was fired.
In fact, they say, he introduced Riverso to Behzad Sabagh, one of the developers who would ply them both with payoffs for years.
Sabagh, a 37-year-old former used car salesman who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last month, was never particularly subtle about the relationship he forged with Sheriff’s Office staff.
Between 2006 and 2018, he bought at least 187 properties at sheriff’s sales, and would later admit to handing Riverso hundreds of dollars in cash — sometimes tucked into greeting cards -— during each of multiple meetings in the lobby of the sheriff’s office at 100 S. Broad St. or on the street just outside.
On visits to the real estate department, “Sabagh would openly make demands” of Riverso, prosecutors said in a March memo on his case. “Riverso explained to Sabagh that he can’t talk like that” so openly in public.
Court filings indicate Riverso and the other official made little effort to hide the illicit payments they were receiving from other frequent bidders as well.
In an interview with FBI agents, Riverso recalled one of their favored property buyers once wandered into the real estate department and handed him a stack of cash while the unnamed official was on the phone.
“Here you go, kid,” the buyer is quoted as saying in court filings. “This is for you guys.”
Riverso would later admit that he and Public Official No. 1 split the money. His partner in crime never questioned who it was from or what it was for.
Riverso told the FBI that he and the same official organized a Christmas party for the real estate department’s staff at Tavern on Broad with the hope that bribe-paying bidders would pick up the tab. They did.
Another developer who has pleaded guilty in the probe — Gregory Guzman, 47, of Huntingdon Valley — has admitted to wining and dining Riverso at restaurants like Le Bec-Fin and South Street’s Serpico, and offering him marijuana. He also gave Riverso a regular cut of the profits he and his business partner, Binyamin Maoz, made flipping houses bought at sheriff’s sale.
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.”
The payments secured Guzman and the other bidders special attention.
Both Riverso and the unnamed official provided lists of properties up for auction before they were available to the public, Guzman and Sabagh said. This allowed them an advantage by giving them more time to evaluate houses they were interested in buying.
Riverso has also admitted to fast-tracking deed processing and lien-removal on properties purchased by those who made payoffs.
In some cases, he said, they also ignored Sheriff’s Office policies requiring full payment for purchased properties within 60 days of sale. That way, favored bidders could sell the properties to new buyers before the final bill became due.
In all, Riverso is alleged to have received thousands of dollars in bribes and other benefits between 2010 and 2013.
The total specifically ascribed to the unnamed official in government court filings is far less — roughly $550. It is unclear, though, whether prosecutors believe he accepted more.
Still, said Washington, the deputy chief sheriff, any amount of graft is too much.