After Rochelle Bilal was elected Philadelphia sheriff last November, she vowed to “remove the dark cloud” that’s been hanging over the semi-autonomous city office for years. But the fresh air promised by the first woman to hold the title of sheriff seems to carry the familiar scent of Philly politics-as-usual.
Firing a financial professional for asking questions about the propriety of spending doesn’t have the ring of either transparency or integrity.
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart may shed some light on all this; in January, she launched an audit of the Sheriff’s Office bank accounts from 2015 to 2019. Results and recommendations are due in a few months. It won’t be the first audit; in 2011, then-Controller Alan Butkovitz ordered a forensic audit of the Sheriff’s Office that found serious improprieties on how funds from foreclosed and tax-delinquent programs were managed. That led to a federal probe and the ultimate imprisonment of former Sheriff John Green, now serving a five-year federal prison sentence.
When Bilal made her campaign promise to end “scandal after scandal after scandal” in the Sheriff’s Office, she didn’t specifically refer to Green — but before Green was locked up, then-candidate Bilal arranged a party and raised money for a party in his honor. In the June 2019 Democratic primary, Bilal defeated former Sheriff Jewell Williams, who has been named in three lawsuits filed by city employees alleging sexual or workplace harassment. Williams has denied all of the allegations.
Surely, no new boss — even one earning $130,668 annually — can be expected to unpack the baggage from decades of scandals like these in a couple of months. But Philadelphians have every right to wonder whether Bilal, a retired city police officer who has long been involved in the community, is serious about reform.
The Sheriff’s Office has a $27 million budget, double what it was a decade ago, and 428 employees handling court security, prisoner transport, and — most importantly — the management of foreclosed and tax-delinquent property sales.
Delinquent property tax collections and other monies totaled $61 million in 2017 from the 20,000 properties the Sheriff’s Office processed. While not all of them were residential or occupied, some of the 20,000 represent the misfortunes of real people among the nearly 25% of Philly residents living in poverty.