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Time to order the sheriff out of the house?

Audits, arrests, and lawsuits point in the same direction: The Philadelphia Sheriff's Office should get out of the real-estate business.

While there have been good interim steps to solving some problems created by more than 20 years of sloppy record-keeping and possibly profiteering by a few, it's time for the idea of an elected sheriff to ride into the sunset.

But until that happens, at the very least Mayor Nutter and City Council should use their legal and political powers to separate the office from money.

Thousands of people are owed about $30 million in funds left over from the sales of their properties. If the sales produced more money than was needed to pay debts, that money should've gone to the owners. Too often, it didn't.

It was bad enough that people lost property. But it was worse when the excess funds slipped behind a stone wall.

The former property owners and successive state Treasurers couldn't get accurate information on the funds. When the Sheriff's Office set up an in-house bureau to return the excess money, another arm of the office denied access to the information, according to an audit ordered by City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

But it seems a group of "finders" had access to the information, and they charged the owners a 30 percent fee or more to recover money.

Councilmen James Kenney and Bill Greenlee sponsored a bill that cut the fee to 15 percent, putting it in line with a state law that caps such fees. That is a good start, but even 15 percent still seems high.

Private lawyers are suing the Sheriff's Office over excess funds from sheriff's sales dating back to 1988.

For years, state Treasurers have tried to force the Sheriff's Office to comply with a state law requiring public agencies and private firms to forward unclaimed money to the Treasurer. But the attempts have been sporadic and sputtered.

A federal investigation suggests that the poor record-keeping may have served as a cover for fraud. Four people, including a former employee, were charged earlier this month in a check-writing scam.

Acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley fired some stonewalling and conflicted employees. With former City Controller Joseph Vignola, she strengthened internal controls. But all that ends when the new sheriff takes over. Sheriff-elect Jewell Williams has not detailed his plans.

Past mayors and City Councils have looked the other way even as criticism of the Sheriff's Office has mounted. It is now overwhelming.

Nutter, Council, and Williams should take advantage of the clear evidence and transfer real-estate operations to the city where they must be conducted in the light of day.