Federal authorities on Thursday charged a third real estate investor with bribery-related offenses in a long-running corruption probe of the process through which the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office sells seized and foreclosed properties.
Prosecutors accused Behzad "Ben" Sabagh, president of Northeastern Real Estate Services, of paying off an employee of the sheriff's real estate department for inside information on houses to be sold at sheriff's sales.
According to his indictment, Sabagh's bribe – $1,000 in cash slipped across a table during a 2012 meeting at a Queen Village coffee shop — also bought him additional time to pay off balances on properties he purchased, as well as expedited processing that enabled him to more quickly flip his investments.
Sabagh, 36, of West Philadelphia, and his attorney, Guy Sciolla, did not return calls for comment Thursday.
He is the third sheriff's-sale bidder to be charged since 2015 for making illicit payments to the same former Sherriff's Office employee, Michael Riverso.
Sheriff Jewell Williams fired Riverso in 2013 after his name came up in connection with the FBI investigation. Riverso has since pleaded guilty to charges of honest services fraud and related tax counts and is awaiting sentencing in October.
Two other real estate company owners who also have pleaded guilty — Gregory Guzman and Binyamin Maoz, partners in the firm Enterprise Properties LLC — admitted to plying Riverso with pricey dinners at the now-closed Le Bec-Fin and free rent to gain an inside track in the competitive and potentially lucrative sheriff's sales market.
Sabagh's case is only the latest in a string of embarrassments that have plagued the sheriff's sale process under three administrations.
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors took former Sheriff John Green to trial on allegations that he directed lucrative contracts for placing sheriff sale ads in local newspapers to a campaign supporter who plied him with gifts for years. A jury ultimately acquitted Green on three corruption-related counts but deadlocked on others. The U.S. Attorney's Office has vowed to retry him.
His successor, Barbara Deeley, was one of the government's star witnesses against Green, but she insisted on being granted immunity from prosecution before agreeing to take the witness stand.
Since taking over from Deeley in 2012, Williams has sought to position himself as a reformer who has improved the sheriff's sale process and opened it up to a wider array of bidders.
Still, his office's process for selling advertisements for upcoming property sales has recently drawn scrutiny. And although Riverso, Deeley's cousin, was hired under her watch, most of the period during which he has admitted to taking bribes occurred under Williams' tenure.