Election 2019

Embattled Philly sheriff scores re-election cash from staff — and his rival

“As an employee you contribute…every year.”

Flickr / City of Philadelphia

Most workers in Philly would probably laugh at the idea of cutting their boss a thank you check — perhaps more so for a boss dogged by allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Not so for employees for Sheriff Jewell Williams.

Staffers in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Department made up nearly a fifth of individual contributors to Williams’ campaign last year, according to a Billy Penn analysis. Collectively, these small donations amounted to 10 percent of his $56,000 haul. The longstanding arrangement is one that political observers call highly unusual and ripe for abuse.

Even more unusual is that one of the employees who donated to Williams’ campaign is now running against him.

Last September, just three months before she would declare her candidacy, former deputy sheriff Malika Rahman cut a $100 check to Citizens for Jewell Williams.

One of three Democrats vying to unseat the two-term sheriff, Rahman told Billy Penn she not yet decided she was going to resign and run against her old boss at the time she made her annual donation this year.

More importantly, she alleged, making such contributions for their boss’ annual “birthday fundraiser” has long been part of the office’s toxic practices.

“The culture that has been in the office is that as an employee you contribute to that particular event every year — because if not, there are unfavorable situations that could result from it,” Rahman said.

‘We don’t solicit the employees’

The staff-to-sheriff funding pipeline has long raised eyebrows outside the office. A 2015 Inquirer analysis found that all but one of the department’s top overtime earners had also donated to Williams’ campaign. The sheriff rebuked allegations of a quid pro quo — and echoed those sentiments this week, telling Billy Penn the practice is above board.

“We don’t solicit the employees,” the sheriff said. “If the person doesn’t want to give, they can not give.”

All of the recent donations made by staff came around the time of Williams’ birthday last September.

Williams, now 61, claimed his staff regularly pools money for birthdays, no matter whose they are. Rahman had helped “promote and sponsor” his party just months before her resignation, he said, just like in years past.

“The day before she left, I told her, ‘Godspeed on your new ventures.’ We all put money in a card for her, $5 or $10 each, and had a cake celebration,” Williams said. “The next day she announced she was going to run.”

He added: “You try to help people and bring them along and then they go behind your back.”

Rahman said she decided to run partly because of such practices in the office, which she described as unethical and oppressive.

“I have worked with people who have been there for 30 years and suffered that climate the entire time,” Rahman said. “There are people in that office right now who are still suffering.”

Three women who worked for Williams have also accused him of sexual harassment in recent years; two of those complaints have since been settled at taxpayer’s expense.

The overtime equation

The average contribution from the 20 sheriff’s employees was $250 — which probably hurt some pockets more than others. While many donors were deputy sheriffs with salaries over $80,000, others were clerks and administrative assistants who made closer to $45,000 annually, payroll records show.

But that’s before overtime.

Those who chipped in for Williams’ political operation — minus Rahman, who left the office in December — accrued nearly $300,000 in overtime in the 2018 fiscal year, according to city payroll data. That amount made up a full quarter of their combined annual salaries.

Critics say combination of politics and overtime is a bad look.

“It creates the impression that part of the overtime you receive might be expected to be kicked back to the sheriff’s campaign fund,” David Thornburgh, director of Committee of 70, told the Inquirer in 2015.

Duties for the Sheriff’s Department include providing security in city courthouses and other government buildings, transporting people in the prison system and collecting delinquent taxes. With more than 320 employees overall, Williams’ row office cleared $4.2 million in overtime that same year, the eighth highest among all city agencies.

Rahman isn’t the only one to resurface allegations about quid pro quo for overtime on the campaign trail. Larry King, a deputy sheriff who worked under Williams’ predecessor John Green for over a decade, said tithing to the boss’ campaign fund was a tradition whose disregard triggered severe consequences — and alleged the practice has carried into the Williams era.

“I was told that if I didn’t give money to the sheriff’s campaign or any of his events, that I would be taken off the K-9 unit,” King told WHYY, adding that, under Green, he was transferred after he declined to write a check.

The current sheriff reiterated his stance that his staff-donors are simply pleased with his work in the office he has held since 2012.

“Those are the people,” Williams said, “who support what I’m doing and support the campaign.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2019 stories.

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