Three decades ago, John Green ran as a reformer for Philadelphia sheriff, winning control of a notoriously corrupt law enforcement agency.
A federal jury on Tuesday heard just how well that reform effort went, as Green went on trial with businessman James Davis.
Green, charged with conspiracy and wire fraud, held the office of sheriff from 1998 to 2010. He favored Davis with lucrative, no-bid contracts and effectively handed control to him of sheriff’s sales in the city, the process by which properties seized in foreclosures or for tax liens are resold, according to prosecutors.
Allegedly in return, Davis showered Green with gifts and money. There was the home renovated and sold to Green for a $30,000 loss. And a job for Green’s wife. And the nearly $150,000 for Green’s 2007 reelection campaign. And $62,000 in cash, plus an interest free loan of nearly $260,000, for Green’s retirement home in Florida.
The contracts for Davis, which reaped him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, were kept from the public. Green did not report the cash, gifts, or campaign contributions, as required by law. Davis didn’t even bother to file federal income taxes some years.
We’ve said this before but it bears repeating: Why do we still have so-called “row offices” like the sheriff, register of wills and city commissioners when those functions can be absorbed by the larger city government? Philadelphia has a long and troubled history of public corruption, served up with dysfunction and inefficiency. Those problems always seem to stand out most among the row offices.
City Commissioner Anthony Clark, who helps oversee elections in Philadelphia, won a third term in 2015, despite revelations he routinely did not vote, rarely showed up at his office, and was cited and fined by the city’s Board of Ethics for pushing for his brother, who worked in his office, to get a salary increase.
Register of Wills Ron Donatucci’s office in 2015 resisted a public records request from a Republican challenger for a list of employees. The challenger wanted to see how many employees were Democratic ward leaders and committee members, since row offices are so often rife with patronage jobs.
In 2008, then-Mayor Michael Nutter suggested folding the row offices into other city agencies. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority in 2009 said such a move could save $13 million to $15 million per year while increasing transparency and efficiency.
But only the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the one row office that could be abolished without voter approval of a City Charter change, was eliminated in 2010 by City Council, amid a forensic audit of shoddy record keeping and poor management of bail accounts.
Mayor Kenney, as a City Council member in 2011, said the sheriff’s sale process should be transferred to city government, though he supported keeping the office open. More recently, he called on Sheriff Jewell Williams to resign due to a sexual harassment scandal.
A jury will decide the fates of Green and Davis during a trial expected to last two weeks.
After that Kenney and City Council should give Philadelphia’s voters the chance to decide the fate of our row offices. Let them weigh savings and transparency against dysfunction and corruption.