Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley listens during a press briefing in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic

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Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley abruptly resigned Thursday at the request of Mayor Jim Kenney, who asked his top doctor to step down after learning Farley had ordered MOVE bombing victims cremated in 2017 without informing surviving family members.

One day after the resignation was made public, the mayor made another shocking announcement: the remains thought to have been destroyed four years ago were found.

The sudden revelation came on the 36th anniversary of the deadly 1985 bombing in West Philadelphia.

Staff in the Medical Examiner’s Office on Friday found a box labeled “MOVE,” Kenney said in a statement. “After comparing the contents of the box to an inventory of bone specimens and fragments from 2017, they appear to be the remains thought to have been cremated four years ago.”

According to The Inquirer, the box was found unexpectedly in a basement. It’s unclear why Medical Examiner Sam Gulino did not dispose of the remains as Farley directed; Gulino has been placed on administrative leave. The discovery only leads to more questions over policies and procedures at the Medical Examiner’s Office, which is part of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. The city has hired Dechert LLP law firm to lead an investigation.

News of Farley’s involvement with the remains came to the mayor’s attention on Tuesday, a few weeks after news reports raised questions about Penn Museum’s mishandling of MOVE victims’ remains. He reached out to Michael Coard, lawyer for the surviving MOVE members, and set up a meeting with the Africa family.

At a remembrance march Thursday evening, MOVE member Pam Africa said she learned of Farley’s actions over the phone on Wednesday, and arranged an in-person meeting with the mayor the next morning. The family requested the news be made public that day.

“It wasn’t because it was [the anniversary],” Pam told WHYY News. “We just felt as though it needed to go out as soon as possible.”

Kenney said during a press briefing that the remains recently discovered at Penn Museum and the remains at the Medical Examiner’s Office were not the same. In a statement released Thursday, Farley said the recent reports were what caused him to “reconsider” his actions.

“I believe my decision was wrong and represented a terrible error in judgment,” Farley said.

A national search after a tumultuous term

Farley, who led Philly’s pandemic response for the past 15 months, told Managing Director Tumar Alexander about his mishandling of the MOVE remains hours after finally announcing a rollback date for the city’s COVID mitigation rules. All restrictions except indoor masking are expected to end June 11.

The public health official’s term in Philadelphia was not without prior scandal.

The normally sleepy post has been unusually chaotic under his watch, culminating in the pandemic. Farley’s handling of the biggest modern health crisis at times earned praise; at other times, it drew widespread derision and calls for his resignation.

In early 2021, a deputy health commissioner stepped down amid the scandal with Philly Fighting COVID — an untested group of self-described college students that the health department partnered with to administer vaccines. But Farley stayed on, and the mayor continued to praise his work regarding the coronavirus.

“I was not happy with the Philly Fighting COVID issue,” Kenney said at a press briefing Thursday afternoon, asking whether it factored into his request for a resignation, “[but] I would have asked him to step down just over this.”

He noted the rollout of the vaccine had just begun when the PFC scandal broke. “The thought of having to go on a national search for a health commissioner during that moment didn’t seem appropriate.”

A national search to fill the position will now begin, Kenney said.

Cheryl Bettigole, the director of the Health Department’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, will replace Farley as acting health commissioner while city leaders search for a full-time replacement.

His departure comes after a tumultuous year for the Kenney administration, and he is not the first official to step down under scrutiny. The city’s managing director resigned amid pressure during Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Appointed by Kenney in 2016, Farley came to town with far-reaching credentials, as an epidemiologist in New Orleans and later as the health commissioner of New York City.

Farley helped bolster Kenney’s push to enact a tax on sugary beverages, the major policy victory of the mayor’s first term. He also had to deal with a surging overdose crisis, and a blistering Hepatitis A outbreak.

From ‘Superman’ of NYC to Philly soda tax champ

Known as a big fan of data who usually keeps a low profile, Farley was thrust into the local spotlight by the coronavirus. At briefings held each week for more than a year, he read off stats like new cases and deaths, and offered guidance on how people should behave.

Long before he came to Philadelphia, Farley got his medical degree at Tulane and then held a gig at the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.

He served as health commissioner of New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2009 to 2014. One year later, Farley published a book about his time at the major metropolitan health agency, called “Saving Gotham” — which chronicled the strategies of the former health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, like prohibiting smoking in bars and outlawing trans fats in restaurants.

In 2010, the New York Times profiled Farley, saying the health commissioner was “fast emerging as Superman.”

Once in Philadelphia, Farley made a name for himself by backing controversial ideas he felt  were supported by scientific evidence. He was an early supporter of supervised injection sites, and he stood behind Mayor Kenney as a big supporter of the soda tax.

Before the pandemic hit, nothing defined Farley more than his infatuation with numbers.

As he battled the city’s opioid epidemic, he led the citywide charge to collect “reams of data.”

“I came from a world where people thought that humans acted very rationally,” Farley told Philly Weekly in 2018. “But the data does not support that.”

Flatten the curve meets Philly Fighting COVID

Farley’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic garnered some accolades early on. The city’s “Safer at Home” restrictions, often stricter than Pennsylvania’s statewide mandates, were credited with slowing the damage wrought by the virus.

Led by Farley, the health department quickly restructured to handle the pandemic. The local strategy was credited with helping the Philly area “flatten the curve.” Farley orchestrated the Liacouras Center surge facility, opening up extra beds to ensure that hospitals did not get overwhelmed with COVID patients.

Though the early response to the pandemic won positive marks, the health department’s preparation for and rollout of the vaccine was a different story.

Farley and his team had months to prepare for the eagerly anticipated arrival of the first doses in Philadelphia, and to identify adequate providers. Instead, the Philly Fighting COVID scandal would come to tar the city’s first pass at fair vaccine distribution.

Under Farley’s watch, the city partnered with the 9-month-old startup organization run by a group of college students with no medical experience. Philly Fighting COVID was the group chosen to distribute vaccines at the city’s very first mass vaccination clinic in January.

The partnership imploded almost as quickly as it began, after WHYY and Billy Penn news reports brought to light that PFC had sown distrust with community groups and changed to a for-profit without alerting the city, among other revelations.

Philadelphia’s inspector general later issued a critical report saying the partnership put the city “at great risk.” City Council grilled the commissioner over his decision making at hearings, and numerous leaders called for his resignation.

Kenney stood by the embattled commissioner through it all — until now.

The man who the New York Times once compared Superman bows out of Philadelphia amid a flurry of questions over his involvement with cremated children’s remains.

Said Farley in a statement: “I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...