To go back to a time before the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office was consumed by scandal, you’d have to time-travel at least three decades. Ex-Sheriff John Green, the city’s longest-serving sheriff, is now in the midst of his five-year prison sentence for a bribery scheme he led from the office. Green’s successor, Jewell Williams, who lost his reelection bid, has been credibly accused of sexual harassment multiple times — in lawsuits that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands in settlements. Now, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal is accused by three staffers of ignoring sexual harassment claims, asking employees to break the law, financial impropriety, and retaliation against employees who spoke up.
The accusations against Bilal are still only that, accusations. No court of law has adjudicated the matter, as happened with Green, and no investigation assessed the credibility of the allegations, as happened with Williams. But they are still a dispiriting reminder of the inherent conflicts that can arise with the specific duties of the office — and how resistant the office has been to reform.
Compared with other states and counties where sheriffs provide the primary law enforcement, run county jails, and execute foreclosures and evictions, the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office has relatively limited duties: transport of incarcerated individuals, providing security to the courts, serving warrants and other court orders, and holding sheriff sales of foreclosed and tax-delinquent properties.
It is that final role that makes the Sheriff’s Office so ripe for stronger oversight and regulation. The sheriff is empowered to sell properties and is then responsible for disbursing the proceeds of those sales. After tax liens, mortgages, utilities, and other expenses are paid, the remainder should go to the original owner. In the past, this money owed original property owners has been undercut by excessive fees or stockpiled in sheriff’s accounts, subject to shoddy and chaotic record-keeping — a system the current sheriff vowed to fix. Sheriff Green’s crime was handing off this responsibility to a private firm, without any bid or contract, in exchange for kickbacks totaling $675K. Brett Mandel, who served as Bilal’s chief financial officer for five weeks, alleged last spring that he was fired after raising concerns about expensive contracts for advertising of sheriff sales. Mandel further claims that Bilal spent money from a multimillion-dollar slush fund.
Any government entity that collects so much money through fees, collection of debt, and sale of properties — $61 million in 2017 alone, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s annual report — and that has a multimillion-dollar slush fund needs extra scrutiny. The independence of the Sheriff’s Office is supposed to insulate it from corruption. In practice it has insulated it from accountability.
The court process will need to play out to determine the veracity of the current allegations. But whatever the outcome, it’s time to once again raise the question: Why do we need a sheriff’s office? The question has been raised in the past by the good-government group the Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperative Authority (PICA), as has this editorial board. As we have argued in the past, the Department of Prisons could take up transport duties, the First Judicial District can pay for security, and service of court orders and warrants could be divided between the courts and the police. Philadelphia can and should get creative about sheriff sales: How can the sale of foreclosed and delinquent properties be done in a way that guarantees oversight and promotes community goals? Finding the answer to that question is a challenge — but also a big opportunity.
If Philadelphia finds the political will to abolish the Sheriff’s Office, it shouldn’t stop there. The function of the two other row offices — the Register of Wills and City Commissioners — should also be swallowed by other government entities. The Register of Wills has been a fiefdom of patronage for decades. The Commissioners spent 2019 in a controversy about the selection process of voting machines. The announcement that City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican who played a key role in defending the count in Philadelphia following the November election, is not going to seek another term should add urgency to the abolition effort.
Eliminating the row offices requires a change in the Home Rule Charter followed by a ballot initiative — a process that must start in City Council. It’s hard to understand why this isn’t on Council’s agenda.