The city's acting sheriff, Barbara Deeley, took over in January after her boss, John Green, had run the office for 23 years. City Controller Alan Butkovitz had initiated a forensic audit because of widespread irregularities in the sheriff's accounts. A federal investigation continues.
Deeley talked with Inquirer reporter Bob Warner last week about her year in the hot seat. (Among other items, she disclosed that the president judge of Common Pleas Court, Pamela Dembe, had insisted in January on the removal of four employees involved with sheriff's sales and finances.)
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Question: You took over the Sheriff's Office after the city controller raised concerns about the handling of more than $50 million in the sheriff's bank accounts. What were your goals coming in, and what have been your major accomplishments?
Barbara Deeley: My goal coming in was to make this office . . . transparent. . . . After speaking to [President Judge Pamela Dembe of Common Pleas Court] . . . I immediately removed those people from real estate, and I immediately removed the finance director. I just had to do that. . . . I needed somebody in here to take a look at this whole accounting procedure because I was never really involved in it at all. . . . Which [Ricardo Zayas of the Nihill & Riedley accounting firm, recently renamed Smart Devine] has done and which he still continues to do. And I wanted to make the sheriff sales run smoothly because all those people were removed. That's why we put a moratorium on all the sheriff sales for three months . . . We signed a memorandum of understanding with the mayor and also the [court system]. . . . [M]y plan now is to make sure Sheriff-elect Jewell Williams finds a clean house.
Q: Do you think the new sheriff will find a clean house? Just a couple of weeks ago, the feds brought their first criminal charges, against an accountant [Richard Bell] who was still on the sheriff's payroll.
Deeley: Out of all the names, nobody ever brought his name up to me and said you need to get rid of that person. . . . I immediately terminated him, that day.
Q: Somebody told me that that investigation had begun here in the Sheriff's Office, when John Green was sheriff.
Deeley: Yes, it did.
Q: But it didn't progress far enough for you to think that any personnel action was necessary?
Deeley: No. . . . [Sheriff Green] said turn it over to the district attorney, and that's what we did.
Q: When did you know that you were John Green's pick to succeed him as acting sheriff?
Deeley: I wanted to be the first female sheriff in the history of Philadelphia. . . . [M]y commitment [was] that I would not run against Jewell Williams.
Q: What was the timing?
Deeley: Not even a year [around the May 2010 primary].
Q: You'd been with John Green for years before that.
Deeley: 24 years.
Q: Throughout that period, what was your impression of the operations inside this office, especially in real estate, which had a long history of problems?
Deeley: There were a lot of things I did not like, a lot of things I did not agree with. I did not think that Crystal and Darrell [Stewart, the husband and wife in charge of the sheriff's real estate operations] should be working together. I felt that Reach Communications had . . . too much control in here. And I felt that the finance director [Tyrone Bynum], there was no control over him at all. None.
Q: You were a trusted aide to John Green in this whole period. Did you ever broach these subjects with him?
Deeley: Many a time. Many a time.
Q: And what happened?
Deeley: "Don't worry about that. Don't you worry about that, I'll worry about that stuff."
Q: But then nothing happened.
Q: Did you follow up?
Deeley: You ask questions. Remember one thing. I was an at-will employee. . . . If you get too pushy, the next day you might be in the unemployment line, or replaced.
Q: So you really felt that if you went any farther than you were going, your job was in jeopardy?
Deeley: Sure, you can go around here and ask anybody that.
Q: Even with your relationship with John Green? Did he say something that made you think that?
Deeley: No. . . . he's very mild-mannered. He never would raise his voice. I'm the screamer.
Q: He also seemed to take criticism well. He was always promising to reform things, make things better. Did you ever go to him and say, 'You know, we promised to have contracts in place for all these operations.'?
Deeley: That wasn't my line of responsibility. It really wasn't. The finance director reported directly to him. Real estate was under the control of Reach Communications. They dealt directly with him.
Q: Have you been in touch with Green the last year?
Deeley: When I first took office and when I fired everyone, I called him and told him I have to do something today that is not very good. And his exact words were, 'Babs, you got to do what you got to do. You're the sheriff now.'
Q: Have you had subsequent conversations?
Deeley: Very rarely.
Q: Has he expressed any regret about anything?
Q: At the end of your first week in January, you fired two people, pushed another into retirement, and cancelled the sheriff's arrangements with Reach Communications, which had been handling the sheriff's computer operations. . . . Did something happen that first week, or was it something you had worked out in your head weeks ahead?
Deeley: No. It was basically the conversation I had with [Dembe] . . . I went on a goodwill mission, and they sat me down with a legal pad and they said, 'This is what you've got to do.' . . . In fact, they wanted to do it.
Q: Who? Judge Dembe?
Deeley: Yes. They actually wanted to do it. And I would not let them do it. I said that would be insulting, in a law enforcement office. . . . I couldn't look weak. And I couldn't look like this was a corrupt office anymore. I mean, that's what people view it as. . . . And I cannot hand this over to Sheriff-elect Jewell Williams with that same notion.
Q: So the precise dynamics of it were that Judge Dembe had already gone over the controller's audit.
Deeley: Probably, yeah.
Q: And had decided that there were a number of things that had to be done. When John Green is gone and Barbara Deeley takes over, we're going to break the news to Deeley?
Deeley: That's exactly how it went.
Q: Did you immediately agree?
Deeley: I was extremely upset. I was so upset that they all got upset. I was like, what are you talking about? But I did it.
Q: You're now having a couple of sheriff sales each month. . . . Are you confident now that when these sales take place, all of the money is winding up where it's supposed to be?
Q: And is there a process for getting money to people whose properties are sold?
Deeley: Yes. . . . But you have to understand, you have to really investigate when someone comes here. You have to come here with two forms of ID. There are forms to fill out. It's all checked and double-checked.
Q: You're signed up for the DROP program, which runs out in February. Are you planning to stay on for a transition with Jewell Williams?
Deeley: He has expressed he would like me to stay, but I think when you're on the DROP, you should drop. . . . You're fortunate to get that money, move on.