The Sheriff's Office Is Terrible. Let's Close It Down.


(Sheriff Jewell Williams (right) with Darrell Clarke and Anthony Williams | Photo: Philly Public Record)

Sheriff Jewell Williams needs to take an unpaid leave of absence until he's fully cleared of the sexual harassment allegations against him, and this is also a good occasion for a reminder that the Sheriff's office has always been bad, and should've been dissolved as an elected position long ago.

The Inquirer makes a more detailed case in an editorial responding to the allegations against Williams, but the main thing to know is that Philadelphia has never had a competent or scandal-free Sheriff in modern times, and this is a huge problem because one of the office's main jobs is managing the city's foreclosed property auctions.

Before Williams there was Sheriff John Green, whose federal bribery trial conveniently just began. The case against Green gets deep into the weeds pretty quickly, but is ably summarized here by Robert Moran.

"[Green has been accused] of taking bribes worth six figures from a top campaign donor and friend who was granted a virtual stranglehold over $115 million in Sheriff's Office contracts. Prosecutors allege that Green, 68, all but handed over the reins of one of the major duties of his office - managing court-ordered sales of foreclosed properties - to advertising and title firms owned by James R. Davis Jr., 65, of Wyncote.

To maintain that lucrative relationship from 2002 to 2010, Davis purportedly plied Green with hidden campaign contributions, a job for Green's wife, and payments on two houses - including more than $320,000 in gifts and loans toward a retirement home near Kissimmee, Fla. The indictment alleges a clear quid pro quo."

Before Green, who in a hilarious twist came into the office as a reformer, there was Ralph 'Boss Hog" Passio, who was somehow even worse than Green. From the Inquirer editorial:

"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."

Dave Davies recounted even more of Boss Hog's failings in a column a few years ago:

"There were stories about Passio giving deputy badges to his friends, shady characters getting access to sheriff sale records, and one of my favorites, the time he sent deputies to Virginia to pick up a prisoner, only to discover they’d read the paperwork wrong – they were supposed to have brought a prisoner from Philadelphia to Virginia."

With Jewell Williams, this reformer-to-bad guy pattern seems to have repeated once again. Back in 2013, the FBI raided the Sheriff's office, and reporter Isaiah Thompson confirmed that they were interested in activities occurring under Williams's tenure, not Green's. In a three-part series for the defunct AxisPhilly publication, Thompson reported that many of the problematic practices involving contracts for Sheriff's sale listings that had jammed up John Green had actually continued under Williams. 

Barring the possibility of some kind of curse on the office, it seems pretty clear this position has a strong corrupting influence on its inhabitants. This is an entirely predictable outcome for any low-visibility row office that doles out millions in contracts with no direct accountability to the Mayor or City Council, and it's why Council should eliminate it as an elected position at the next opportunity: with a ballot question on the May primary ballot. 

Already, elected officials are starting to step up calls for accountability. Controller-elect Rebecca Rhynhart issued a statement promising a “detailed audit” of the Sheriff’s Office after she takes office in January, citing the alleged harassment as one reason to conduct “a much deeper review of the office.” That's a big deal: recall that it was an audit by Controller Alan Butkovitz that led to John Green's undoing. 

Getting a no-punches-pulled accounting of the situation from someone unconnected to the City's Democratic Party establishment will be very beneficial to the cause, but  City Council already has more than enough information about the problem to justify dissolving the office and reassigning its functions. The timing couldn't be better. 

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