Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams has denied sexual harassment allegations filed last week with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the charges have flipped another light switch on this historically troubled office and prompts questions about whether it has made enough reforms to justify its continued existence.
The Sheriff’s Office provides court security, including transporting prisoners, and sells foreclosed and delinquent properties. For years, some have argued that those responsibilities could be farmed out to more appropriate and professional agencies.
In fact, more than 30 years ago, civic reformers wanted to do just that and disband the office. At the time, Sheriff Ralph Passio III, elected in 1983, had built a reputation for favoritism and incompetence. Prisoners escaped custody, staff lost stun guns and couldn’t account for petty cash. The office gave two speculators special access to pending land sales records, which they used to rip off vulnerable property owners.
The movement to disband the office was quickly forgotten when John Green was elected sheriff in 1987 on promises to reform the office. But within a couple of years, the office was back to its old ways.
A robust investigation by City Controller Alan Butkovitz led to a federal investigation. Green is now awaiting trial on federal charges that between 2002 and 2010 he gave a political consultant and campaign donor control over the office’s contracts in exchange for bribes. In 2013, the city filed a civil lawsuit against Green and others, claiming they diverted millions of dollars from city sheriff’s sales.
Williams, who was first elected in 2011, also on the promise of reform, got off to a bad start when his campaign sent letters to subordinates asking them to contribute to his political campaign fund. The Inquirer reported that employees who contributed to Williams’ campaign fund also were the top recipients of lucrative overtime assignments.
The sheriff handed out more than $1 million in contracts without competitive bidding. He agreed to abide by the city’s procurement process, which requires him to bid out contracts above $32,000. But in 2014, the controller criticized both the city and the sheriff for failing to enforce the deal or deliver on promised reforms of the office.
Last year, the city Ethics Board censured Williams for accepting $1,000 from the late Councilman James Tayoun’s newspaper, the Public Record, which publishes Sheriff’s Office advertising.
Routine annual controller’s audits uncovered minor problems, including failures to account for petty cash and failing to keep track of sick time, which Williams has tried to fix. But the controller hasn’t done a more detailed audit of the Sheriff’s Office.
Controller-elect Rebecca Rhynhart, who promised reform in her campaign, can start by rigorously and regularly auditing the Sheriff’s Office and others.
Given the office’s long history of management problems, and its apparent inability to reform, it’s time for Mayor Kenney and City Council to also consider a charter change question allowing voters to abolish this troubled office.