The FBI raided the real estate division of the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office on Thursday. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Sheriff Jewell Williams has characterized the feds' actions as related to Williams' predecessors in the office.
Joseph Blake, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said in an email Thursday afternoon that "as part of an ongoing investigation begun in the previous administrations, the FBI arrived at the Sheriff's Office at 100 S. Broad this morning with a search warrant and subpoena for certain records and files."
The Sheriff's Office fully cooperated with the agents, Blake said.
Blake declined further comment.
Williams has been sheriff since January 2012. John Green, the last elected sheriff before Williams, resigned the post after more than decades in office in January 2011, and was succeeded by Barbara Deeley, who served as acting sheriff through the end of his term. Deeley had been chief deputy sheriff under Green.
The Sheriff's Office's management of foreclosures and the sale of properties has been the subject of allegations of corruption and mismanagement in recent years.
In 2011, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released findings of a forensic investigation in which the controller alleged that Green allowed others to profit financially from property sales carried out under the public imprimatur.
According to the audit, for 20 years, Reach Communications Specialists provided advertising regarding the sheriff's sales, and RCS Searchers was a title insurance company that provided title insurance, deed-related services and other services to the Sheriff's Office. James Davis Jr. owned Reach Communications and RCS Searchers, while his sister, Crystal Stewart, was the director of the Sheriff's Office's real estate division and his brother-in-law, Darrell Stewart, was the supervisor of the real estate division. The two companies either overcharged the office $7.4 million under a 15 percent commission contract or $11.6 million under a "'2.9 line per writ'" contract, according to the audit.
For example, the audit said, $2.9 million was overcharged by Reach Communications/RCS Searchers for posting properties on a website.
The audit also found that private finders were given access to citizens who were owed money from sheriff's sales, and one "private finder" with a close relationship to the Stewarts reportedly charged as much as 35 percent of money owed to homeowners to help them get their money. That finder earned $1.5 million from homeowners from 2004 through 2010, the audit said.
The controller referred the audit's findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office in November 2011.
Not only did the city of Philadelphia sue Green and other defendants this spring, but the U.S. Attorney's Office has already prosecuted at least one person who was employed in the Sheriff's Office.
On June 26, Richard Bell, a Philadelphia Sheriff's Office accounting department employee, was charged with conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud the Sheriff's Office, according to an FBI press release.
Bell pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
According to the FBI, Bell allegedly operated the scheme with Gerard Joseph of La Jolla, Calif., who was charged separately. Joseph's business consisted of buying, renovating and selling properties in the Philadelphia area. The indictment said that between 2007 and 2008, Bell and Joseph conspired to purchase properties at sheriff's sales for 10 percent of the sale price, according to the FBI.
"Joseph would pay the 10 percent deposit on the day of the sale and pay the remaining 90 percent within 30 days of the sale. Bell, who worked in the accounting department, would remove the 90 percent payment before it was deposited into the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office bank account, thereby allowing Joseph to buy the properties for 10 percent of the sale price. Joseph would then resell the properties at a profit and would pay Bell a fee," the FBI press release said.
Joseph received all profits that should have gone to the Sheriff's Office, according to the FBI.