Imagine you're relaxing at home, opening the mail, and find a letter from your boss asking for money. Would you, even for a second, consider what would happen if you don't give up some cash? That's the intimidating quandary that faced Philadelphia Sheriff's Office employees who received fliers in the mail soliciting donations for the reelection of their boss, Jewell Williams.
The City Charter clearly says elected officeholders shouldn't solicit campaign donations from subordinates. But Williams, who is seeking a second term, argues that he has broken no rules since his requests were mailed and not made at the office. It's a distinction without a difference.
The sheriff's behavior is even more disappointing considering that he ran for office four years ago as a reformer. Instead of bringing fresh air to the job as he promised, the former legislator has been exhibiting all the characteristics of someone so steeped in Philadelphia's political culture that he can't turn from its ways.
Last year, the city Ethics Board ruled that City Commissioner Stephanie Singer violated the charter by soliciting campaign funds from an employee via email. In a settlement, Singer agreed to take employees off her campaign's email list. The Ethics Board later circulated an advisory opinion unrelated to the Singer case that reiterated that the practice is forbidden, but Williams, who was among the elected officials who received the opinion, acts as if he never read it.
Meanwhile, The Inquirer's Claudia Vargas reported that donations from Sheriff's Office workers account for 18 percent of Williams' campaign war chest. Williams says the donations weren't coerced, but no overt threat has to be made for an employee fearful of retribution to feel intimidated.
In fact, there is substantial evidence that there were rewards and consequences associated with making donations to Williams' campaign. Employees who received the most overtime assignments in his office were also donors to his reelection effort. Conversely, most employees who didn't contribute didn't receive overtime.
This involves a huge sum of money. Williams oversees a department of 324 employees who handle prisoner transportation, courtroom security, and sheriff's sales. In the last fiscal year, the department spent $4.7 million on overtime, which was $2.5 million over budget.
In a letter to The Inquirer, Chief Deputy Sheriff Ben Hayllar contends that it's wrong to tie campaign donations to overtime because it's based on factors Williams can't control, including how many prisoners must be transported and how many foreclosure sales must be held. An Ethics Board investigation could find the truth. Meanwhile, Williams can avoid accusations of coercion by ending the despicable practice of asking his employees for money.