(Sheriff Jewell Williams)
Sheriff's sale ads for property foreclosure sales are a well-known source of influence peddling by the Sheriff's office, and now that Sheriff Jewell Williams has been deposed in the primary by Guardian Civic League President Rochelle Bilal, there are signs Williams may try and use his control of the $8 million ad budget to punish media outlets he thinks contributed to his loss.
Max Marin at Billy Penn reports that the lame duck Williams is "reevaluating" the office's ad spending as he bides his time on his way out of office, and is requesting clips publications have run about the Sheriff's office as part of the review.
Williams, of course, denies that his plan is to pull ads from publications that ran insufficiently flattering coverage of him, but even Williams wouldn't just come out and say that's what he was doing. The retaliation is all implied.
"Williams has refused to talk to the press for months, shunning outlets over what he describes as unfair coverage of his office and the numerous sexual harassment allegations lodged against him. But Gross said timing of the review was purely coincidental.
State regulations require the office to post notice of foreclosure auctions, or sheriff sales, in at least one major general interest newspaper and one legal publication. Thirty years ago, Williams’ predecessor extended the lucrative ads to a string of smaller papers, many with ties to the city’s Democratic political establishment [...]
Williams’ office is now auditing the editorial content of all papers who make money off its ad placements. In a May 28 email obtained by WHYY/Billy Penn, the office requested that 14 publishers turn over clips of news articles mentioning the department.
The sheriff’s office initially indicated it was reviewing ads in The Inquirer and Daily News, which ran scathing coverage of the sexual harassment claims made against Williams. It later clarified the inquiry extends only to a dozen community newspapers, some of which rely heavily on the revenue from these sheriff’s sale ads."
As Marin explains, the Sheriff is required by state law to advertise the foreclosed property sales in at least one major newspaper and one legal publication. They also advertise in a bunch of minor newspapers connected to the local Democratic Party, as Craig McCoy and Jeremy Roebuck reported last year.
"Without any legal obligation to do so, Green and his successor, Jewell Williams, have spent millions of dollars to place ads for forthcoming sheriff sales in community and niche newspapers across Philadelphia, using fees imposed during foreclosures. In some cases, those fees are borne by the very homeowners at risk of losing their houses.
The result has been a bonanza for politically connected intermediaries who have gotten a cut of the ad money, as well as for the papers themselves, a number of which were founded by politically active owners.
Williams and Green both say the money has been well spent, a way to reach a more diverse pool of potential bidders for foreclosed properties. Critics dismiss the ads as an expensive frill, meant to reward the sheriffs' Democratic allies and buy friendly news coverage for the relatively uncovered agency [...]
The Public Record, the Sunday Sun, the Philadelphia Gay News, Scoop USA, Fun Times, and Impacto News are among 20 newspapers and two radio stations that have received such discretionary ad money from the sheriff for years."
Given the nature of the publications, the idea that the post-defeat ad spending review isn't about political retribution seems pretty implausible.
Putting aside the political grift issues, the state law is clearly due for an update. In 2019, looking up addresses in a print newspaper is probably about the least useful way to do property research. What's needed instead is an Atlas-like website hosted by the City with all the relevant public data in one place. The Office of Innovation and Technology apparently already has a framework ready to go for that, as of recently, but it's not in use yet.
Likely next Sheriff Rochelle Bilal should lean into this, and more generally try and shift the Sheriff sale marketing toward useful digital news sources and away from print, which would help dry up the grift while also improving the quality of information people have about the properties up for auction.
Consider how it works now, as reported by Ryan Briggs:
Inside West Philadelphia’s sprawling First District Plaza, a church-owned building that typically hosts four or five sheriff sales a month, would-be purchasers gather inside something resembling a conference room at a two-star hotel. All sales are in cash, effectively sight unseen, and final.
“This property was deemed imminently dangerous. Can I get nine thousand?” drones a sheriff’s deputy onstage at a recent sale.
Buyers hunch over catalogues, printed by a private company and sold for $10 dollars-a-pop, detailing the properties on the block that day. It’s a motley crew: some men are in polos emblazoned with real estate company logos; others are in Hawaiian t-shirts and flip-flops. There are mother-daughter or father-son teams; a few would-be bidders who look no older than 21. Some are pros, but many are amateurs, lured by the promise of cheap real estate.
There are a ton of properties up for auction at any given Sheriff's sale, and the quality of information about them at the time of auction is pretty poor. It doesn't have to be that way. The digital tools and the publicly-available property data exist to bring this whole enterprise into the 21st century.