Updated 2:30 p.m.
Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams has been named in six separate lawsuits since 2017 that allege he harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against his staffers.
Voters gave Williams the boot at the polls earlier this year, selecting Guardian Civic League president and local NAACP secretary Rochelle Bilal to take over the court’s law enforcement arm.
But with just over a month left in office, the outgoing official appears to be continuing his retaliation tactics, an attorney for several sheriff staffers said.
Two high-ranking employees were recently moved to different units, with the reassignments coming soon after they filed legal complaints against their boss, according to internal memos reviewed by Billy Penn.
“This is his MO,” said Steven T. Auerbach, an employment attorney representing the two employees. “When someone files a complaint, they are retaliated against.”
In July, Staff Inspector Marquet Parsons was reassigned to the Civil Enforcement Division. The transfer occurred less than two months after Auerbach filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Parsons’ behalf, the attorney said.
On Nov. 19, Chief Inspector Richard Verrecchio, who filed a discrimination and harassment lawsuit in Philly’s federal court in June, also had his duties shifted as part of a merger between units. Both reassignment memos were signed by two of Williams’ chief deputies.
Williams’ office said the reassignments were based on genuine staffing needs within the office.
“We can’t comment on the specifics of these personnel matters. However, the transfers of these staff members were done with consultation and in order to properly meet the manpower needs necessary to run the Sheriff’s Office in an efficient manner,” said Chief Deputy Kevin Lamb, one of the deputies who signed the memos.
Lawyers often advise employers not to alter a staff member’s work conditions after a complaint has been filed. William A. Destefano, a former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, said the transfers could hurt the city’s case in defending itself over the ongoing suits involving Williams.
“Who wants to get into a situation where somebody is going to perceive this as retaliatory?” Destefano said.
The city has paid out $587,500 to settle litigation involving the sheriff, and several cases remain ongoing. A spokesperson for the city declined to answer specific questions.
A needed staff shuffle, or an overtime slash?
In order to adequately defend the new assignments, Destefano said, the city needs documented proof they would have happened regardless of each employee’s complaint.
In the July reassignment memo sent to Parsons, Deputy Chief Paris Washington wrote “your duty and hours shall remain the same.” He noted in the memo that Parsons’ experience would be useful to the new division, and also said Parsons would continue his assignments within Special Investigations.
Auerbach claimed that hasn’t happened — and that Parsons has suffered loss of overtime hours as a result of the merger.
“Especially now before the holidays, his overtime is out the window,” Auerbach said.
Both employees still appear to have earned sizeable overtime already this year — upwards of $41,000 for Verrecchio and $13,800 for Parsons. It’s unclear if their hours shifted since they were moved, and the city declined to provide a breakdown.
“Overtime for these staff members has remained at consistent levels,” Lamb said in an emailed statement. “Moreover, the Sheriff has been adamant in encouraging any employee with knowledge of wrongdoing to come forward and report these incidents to the police, the City’s Employee Relations Unit, or other appropriate authority.”
Other records reviewed by Billy Penn indicate this isn’t the first time Williams has initiated a reassignment following complaints.
According to a 2017 report filed with the department’s Internal Affairs Unit, Sergeant Angelinel Brown told investigators that Williams confronted her and fellow Inspector Monte Guess to discuss another employee who had complained.
The conversation was about Deputy Sheriff Dolores Ramos, who’d filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment from a supervisor who had been promoted by Williams. (The city settled Ramos’ federal lawsuit earlier this year for $460,000.)
“Who told Ramos to contact EEOC?” Williams asked Brown and Guess, according to the internal affairs memo.
“We didn’t,” Brown wrote in the memo, adding that “[Ramos] has the right to contact whomever she wants, we can’t stop that.”
The next day, Williams personally reassigned Guess to the department’s Civil Division “until further notice,” according to another memo.
Guess, who is also represented by Auerbach, sued the city in federal court in May alleging Williams spread false accusations about him — including that he sexually harassed an employee and served as an FBI informant. Williams also accused him of being a pimp, according to the lawsuit.
Brown separately filed a complaint with the EEOC in September, according to Auerbach, though those allegations are not yet public.
Lawyer: City should protect its workers
More employees will continue to go public with lawsuits involving Williams, Auerbach predicted — even after the sheriff leaves office.
In the most recent federal lawsuit, filed in early November, First Deputy Sheriff Jennifer Algarin-Barnes, one of the highest-ranking female deputies, accused Williams of trying to sabotage her marriage, retaliating against her, and subjecting her to other workplace humiliation after she refused to campaign for him in the May 2019 primary.
“I’m concerned that the city is doing nothing to prevent further reassignments,” Auerbach said. “It takes a federal judge to make the city step up to protect its own employees.”
Williams will be succeeded by Rochelle Bilal in January. Bilal’s spokesperson Teresa Lundy called the new allegations of retaliation through reassignment “unfortunate.”
Bilal plans to launch a transition team to help her take over the office this week, though Lundy said the incoming sheriff doesn’t know how she’ll address some of the practices employees have claimed are still rampant under Williams.
Said Lundy: “When Rochelle is inaugurated come January, she will start to analyze every piece and every entity and every employee and find the best possible solution.”