The city's former sheriff, John D. Green, recently invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination in a civil case involving Sheriff's Office real estate sales.
Green's attorney, Peter J. Scuderi, confirmed Friday his client had cited the Fifth Amendment in declining to answer questions from lawyers in the case. He said that was not significant.
"Taking the Fifth means nothing," Scuderi said. "It's just good lawyering. No competent lawyer would allow his client to answer any questions from anybody during the pendency of such an investigation."
Scuderi said he was referring to an ongoing federal probe of the sheriff's operations by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia.
Contacted Saturday at home in East Mount Airy, Green, 64, declined to comment. He retired as sheriff at the end of 2010, after 23 years in charge of the office.
The federal investigation was first reported last year, after city controller Alan Butkovitz alleged widespread financial irregularities during Green's tenure.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in part, that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law."
Green invoked that protection when he was scheduled to give a sworn deposition within the last two months in a class-action case that accuses him and his office of illegally failing to make payments to thousands of people who were owed money from the proceeds of sheriff's sales.
The primary defendants in the case are Green, former acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley, who held the post for all of 2011, and the City of Philadelphia.
The plaintiffs — several people who lost properties at sheriff's sales, and an agent for others trying to recover money from the Sheriff's Office — allege that within 30 days after the sheriff sells a piece of real estate for unpaid debts or taxes, he is required to prepare a distribution schedule for the proceeds. The schedule is supposed to be available for inspection at the Sheriff's Office.
But from 1998 until he left office, the lawsuit contends, Green failed to prepare the required lists and often failed to distribute the money.
Deeley acknowledged massive accounting problems after she succeeded Green in January 2011. At the end of her first week, she fired the private firm then running the sheriff's computer systems, fired or forced out three of Green's top aides, and transferred the head of Green's real estate operations.
After a private accounting firm was hired to reconstruct the sheriff's financial records, Deeley announced in October she was transferring about $40 million in sheriff's sale proceeds from the sheriff's accounts to the state and city treasuries.
The state Treasurer's Office is accepting claims from people who lost properties at sheriff's sales before 2007 who believe they may be owed some of the proceeds.
The treasurer's unclaimed property list is searchable on the Internet at www.patreasury.gov. The treasurer's phone line is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 1-800-222-2046. There's also an e-mail address: email@example.com.
Green has not been personally implicated in any of the prosecutions mounted so far by the U.S. Attorney's Office. They have focused on the activities of a former sheriff's accounting clerk, Richard Bell, who arranged for more than $400,000 in checks to be written to various businesses with which he later shared the proceeds. Bell pleaded guilty but has not yet been sentenced.
Scuderi noted that some of Bell's bogus checks had been flagged while Green was sheriff and that Green had referred the matter to the District Attorney's Office.
Deloitte Financial Advisory Services, which Butkovitz hired to conduct a forensic investigation of the sheriff's financial records, reported last year that two companies owned by one of Green's friends, James R. Davis Jr., had handled more than $200 million in sheriff's sale proceeds over six years. Butkovitz questioned the validity of the contracts and the amounts the two companies, Reach Communication Specialists and RCS Searchers Inc., had been overpaid, alleging at least $6.2 million in excess fees. Davis' attorney contended the firms had actually been underpaid; they said they were never compensated for work under way when Deeley took over the office and dismissed them.
In an interview in December, Deeley told The Inquirer that when she took over the office, "I felt that Reach Communications had … too much control in here."
She said she had raised that issue and others with Green "many a time," but he told her: "?'Don't worry about that. I'll worry about that stuff.'?"