HILADELPHIA SHERIFF John Green announced that he was hiring a respected consulting firm to fix his office's broken accounting system. It was Green's response to a series of scathing city audits that said financial controls in his department "were so inadequate that fiscal data 'could not be meaningfully analyzed,' and that millions of dollars in funds were 'susceptible' to theft."
These words, from an Inquirer report, may hold no shock for anyone paying attention to the recent travails of the sheriff's office -including Friday's announcement by Controller Alan Butkovitz that he's looking for fraud specialists to conduct a forensic audit of the office - but they shock us: they first appeared in 2003.
That means that for at least seven years, the financial mismanagement of a multi-million-dollar office has continued unchecked. No audit has been too scathing to prevent the sheriff, who has held the office since 1988, from continuing to win elections, and no level of fiscal chaos has been checked with any agency with the teeth to stop it.
How is this possible?
In October, the controller had announced a forensic audit to focus on 11 bank accounts representing $53 million. Green postponed his retirement to be on hand to straighten out the mess. Apparently, even the Controller's Office could make no sense of the screwed-up financial records, so Butkovitz issued a request for proposal for an audit firm specializing in fraud to make sense of things.
The RFP is unusually detailed and includes some of the irregularities the controller found. Among the most stunning: Over $700 million in deposits to the City of Philadelphia don't agree with official bank statements and documents. And one of three title companies given millions in no-contract work is owned or run by people with family ties to a Sheriff's Office staffer.
Basically, the rivers of money flowing into the Sheriff's Office from real estate sales and other functions, as well as payments flowing out, are not registered, recorded, deposited or tracked with any consistency. That means that the pending forensic audit is likely to resemble a particularly challenging episode of "Hoarders."
Except we're not talking about years of accumulated newspapers, dirty dishes and dead cats, but millions of accumulated dollars- many of which come from the sales of foreclosed houses. So the potential victims are people who have already lost nearly everything.
But just like the outrage earlier this month of City Commission staffer Renee Tartaglione resigning over the ethics investigation into her electioneering, this scandal has a bright side: it underscores again why the Sheriff's Office is among the "row offices" that should die. This independent office has been accountable to no one (except voters), and even years of damning controllers' reports have led to no improvements.
We agree with the Committee of Seventy, which has called for Green to retire as planned, and have an interim sheriff appointed by the governor. Green's presence has obviously contributed to a culture of fiscal incompetence, and his continued presence can't help matters.
Given this level of fiscal mismanagement, we also have to wonder: where's the U.S. Attorney's Office? *