Donations by Philly sheriff's top OT earners raise eyebrows

20141005-Sheriff-Jewell-Williams
Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams says campaign donations from deputies had nothing to do with their overtime earnings. "People support you when they feel good... There's no quid pro quo here."

Call it a coincidence: Some of the biggest earners of overtime pay in the Philadelphia Sheriff's Department also contributed to their boss' political campaign fund.

Sheriff Jewell Williams, elected in 2011 as a reformer, says those deputies' campaign donations had nothing to do with their overtime earnings and everything to do with his leadership.

"People support you when they feel good," Williams said in an interview. His chief finance officer, Benjamin L. Hayllar, said: "There's no quid pro quo here."

The donations were small - typically, $100 or $125 per year - but the overtime was not. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, records show, 21 deputies with salaries anywhere from $58,000 to $76,000 earned enough overtime to boost their pay well into six figures.

Williams oversees a department with a budget of $18.4 million and 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 - $2.5 million over budget.

Since 2012, when Williams became sheriff, his employees have given more than $36,000 of the $200,000 total his campaign fund has raised in that time, its reports show.

An Inquirer analysis of those reports, along with city payroll records, also found:

All but one of the 20 top earners of overtime on his payroll have donated to his campaign in the last year as he seeks a second four-year term on the Nov. 3 citywide ballot. The 20th donated in 2012.

Of the top 100 earners of overtime in the department, 67 have made one or more contributions to Williams since he took office in 2012.

Most deputies who received little or no overtime in the most recent fiscal year did not donate to the campaign fund.

The numbers raise eyebrows among nonpartisan watchdog groups and ethics and campaign-law experts.

David Thornburgh, executive director at the Committee of Seventy, said the matchup between overtime earners and campaign donors didn't look good.

"It creates the impression that part of the overtime you receive might be expected to be kicked back to the sheriff's campaign fund," he said.

Williams said the distribution of overtime had nothing to do with politics. He said supervisors keep lists of deputies willing to work extra hours, and when overtime is needed, supervisors start calling down the list. "You have people who want to work overtime and people who don't," Williams said.

Indeed, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 president John McNesby said the union has received no complaints about overtime distribution from deputy sheriffs, whom the union represents.

Williams said his department blew through a lot of overtime this past year because of unpredictable circumstances such as judges keeping juries late or accidents on I-95 when deputies were transporting inmates to and from prisons.

He said that if he had 35 more deputies, overtime wouldn't be such an issue. (Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the department has more employees now than it has had in a long time and "can try to better utilize its staff to achieve efficiencies.")

The overtime resulted in 21 deputies earning more than $100,000 in the last fiscal year. Most deputies are civil-service; the highest salary, for deputy sheriff captain, is $76,191.

Williams said deputies' donations to his campaign merely reflect their happiness with how he is running the row office.

"If you worked under this past administration and you work under this new administration right now, you would be glad to help and support your boss," he said, adding that he has fostered a positive culture.

His predecessor, longtime Sheriff John Green, came in for scathing critiques in audits for poor record-keeping and financial controls before he quit in 2010. After an interim sheriff served, Williams was elected in 2011.

Now he is seeking a second four-year term. He was uncontested in the May 19 Democratic primary and is heavily favored to defeat Republican Christopher Sawyer. As of June 8, Williams had $19,852 left in his campaign account. Most of his expenses were for printing.

Deputy Sheriff Lt. Jennifer Algarin, for one, hopes he wins. Algarin, who gave $225 to his campaign and was a top overtime recipient, said he has improved the department and is well-liked among deputies.

"You work, you do well. . . . You support who you want to support," Algarin said. She has a base salary of $61,883 and received nearly $54,000 in overtime last year, city records show.

Calls seeking comment from other overtime recipients were not returned. The department has a policy of not allowing deputies to speak with the media.

"If they want to contribute, they have a right to contribute any way they want," Williams said. He said campaign fliers - including those asking for donations - are mailed to employees' homes.

"I've had people come to me and say, 'Here is a response to one of our mailers,' and I say, 'Whoa, I don't do that here. You have to mail it to the address,' " he said, throwing his hands up.

That's where Thornburgh sees a problem.

Even if the solicitation is mailed to homes, he said, "it seems outrageous that an officeholder is soliciting campaign contributions from the people he supervises."

The city Board of Ethics issued an advisory opinion last September, saying the City Charter bars "elected officials from personally soliciting political contributions under circumstances where there is a risk of coercion or misuse of office."

The opinion went out to all elected city officials in December, said the board's executive director, Shane Creamer.

Lawyer Adam Bonin, who specializes in election law, said that while compensation and benefits should not be linked to whether an employee gives to a campaign, "the better course of action for elected officials is to avoid soliciting contributions from their employees in the first place so that this question is never raised."

Specifically linking a government worker's pay or benefits to a campaign donation is a crime known as macing. Williams said no one in his office can attest to being maced.

"If they do, they are lying," he said. "There's no macing or anything like that."

Williams, 58, a high-ranking sheriff's employee before serving 10 years in the state House and then running for sheriff, said he was familiar with such pressures.

"When I was here under the old administration, I hated it," he said, referring to Green. "We were asked to buy tickets to Democratic City Committee."

Campaign reports show many deputies also gave to Green's campaigns over the years.

Most deputies who donated to Williams' campaign gave either $100 or $125 in a year, with many donating every year. Some employees gave more, especially those in administrative posts and not in civil service.

"These sums for the [deputies'] contributions, this is tip money," Hayllar, the sheriff's chief financial officer, said as he looked through a spreadsheet of donations compiled by The Inquirer. At Williams' invitation, Hayllar, the city's former finance director, sat in on the paper's interview with the sheriff.

"I'm giving too much, by the way. We're changing our policy, boss," Hayllar quipped.

He donated $1,000 to Williams' campaign fund last year.

cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas