DOZENS OF PEOPLE who are owed money by the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office have been waiting for months or even years to recover the proceeds from real-estate sales, with no coherent explanations for what's taking so long.
It's another sign of the financial wreckage at the Sheriff's Office, where three top aides were fired last week and the city controller is hiring forensic auditors, trying to document what happened to millions of dollars in auction receipts.
"They just stonewall you," said Jack Goldey, a Florida dentist who used to hold the mortgage on a house in South Philadelphia and who is now owed about $9,800, after the property was sold at a sheriff sale two years ago. "I probably called 10 times."
Southcare Nursing Inc., a nonprofit that runs transitional-care homes, received a lien on a Philadelphia rowhouse from a resident in a personal-care home who was unable to pay his rent.
The rowhouse was sold at a sheriff sale several years ago, and there was $14,400 left over after paying back taxes and utility bills. The money should have gone to Southcare, but the organization hasn't been able to collect.
"We had looked into it a few years ago when the sheriff sale went through," said Southcare's executive director, David Dobson. "We just kept getting stonewalled and pushed aside. We consulted a lawyer who said you'd spend a lot of time and money trying to get your money back, and after that, we just let it go for a while."
Linda Mita, of Wynnewood, is also owed money by the Sheriff's Office. Some 20 years ago, she invested about $22,000 underwriting the mortgage on a property on Tree Street in South Philadelphia.
"Maybe it wasn't such a good investment," said Mita, now 68 and retired. The owner of the property ran into financial difficulties and stopped making mortgage and tax payments, and the property was eventually auctioned by the sheriff in mid-2008.
After deductions for unpaid taxes, utilities and other expenses, there was almost $10,000 left over for Mita. More than two years later, she's still waiting for the money.
"From the point that it went into foreclosure, I've been contacting the Sheriff's Office and trying to find out what was left after taxes and everything else," Mita said this week. "They just kept shuffling me back and forth. . . . At some point I just gave up."
So many people are in similar situations that it's created a business opportunity for Joseph O'Hara, of Glenside.
O'Hara figured out a way to compare the proceeds from sheriff-sale auctions with the debts and expenses on each property. When he found there was money left over, he'd contact the owner or mortgage holder and offer his help trying to recover the balance.
Since May, O'Hara has filed petitions on behalf of 18 people and businesses.
So far, he's batting .000.
"All I've gotten so far is that 'It's under investigation,' " O'Hara said.
But he said he was encouraged by the new acting sheriff, Barbara Deeley, appointed by Gov. Rendell at the end of December to replace Sheriff John Green, who retired after 23 years in office. At the end of her first week, Deeley fired Solicitor Ed Chew, who had dealt with O'Hara and many of his clients, including Goldey and Mita.
"It's encouraging that with the new people in place, they're gonna want the public to have the money they're entitled to," O'Hara said.
Former City Controller Joseph Vignola, hired two weeks ago as Deeley's top deputy, said the office was reviewing the claims filed by O'Hara.
Deeley announced yesterday that the office had hired the accounting firm Nihill & Riedley PC to review its accounting procedures and establish a system of internal controls.
Vignola said the firm would be paid up to $200,000, with a goal of completing its work by midyear.
Meanwhile, City Controller Alan Butkovitz is considering proposals from 16 firms to review the sheriff's financial records.
And the president judge of Common Pleas Court, Pamela Pryor Dembe, said she has talked with the two Philadelphia justices on the state Supreme Court - Chief Justice Ron Castille and Seamus McCaffery - about using the Philadelphia courts' computer system to keep track of sheriff sales.
"It would make sense because we already have the computer system to handle civil matters," Dembe said. "You can track every aspect of every case and pay online so you're able to track the money without any slippage. . . . We would have to make some investment in computer software and programming . . . but we could move pretty briskly since we had done something similar last year [taking over the record-keeping of] the Clerk of Quarter Sessions."