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On the surface, it’s just another story about deed theft in Philadelphia.
In early 2014, Norman Johnson sold his three-story Reed Street rowhouse in the fast-gentrifying Point Breeze neighborhood. The fetching price: a modest $15,000.
The problem: Johnson had been dead for more than a decade by the time he supposedly signed over the deed.
Grifters forge and commit bogus transfers with alarming frequency and few consequences in Philadelphia. It’s a rampant problem that local law enforcement largely ignored until recently, often leaving rightful owners fighting long and expensive court battles to reclaim legal title to their properties.
But in this case, the person accused of fraud would go on to build a prosperous career — in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Billy Penn identified the accused perpetrator as state Rep. Amen Brown, a 33-year-old self-described entrepreneur who was elected last year on a vow to rebuild the scandal-plagued 190th District. The deed fraud case is one of several yet unreported lawsuits lodged against the freshman legislator.
While many instances of deed fraud go unnoticed, Johnson’s daughter and rightful heir, Dawn Presbery, fought to claw back the property from Brown.
“As Norman Johnson was deceased at the time the alleged deed was executed, his signature was a known forgery and was notarized with full knowledge of the forgery and that the deed was a fraud,” Presbery claimed in a 2014 lawsuit.
After a two-year battle, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge ruled to nullify the forged deed and reinstate the house to Presbery. As is often the case, Brown, the accused fraudster, never even showed up in court.
District Attorney Seth Williams’ office filed criminal charges against Brown in 2014 — a rare instance for an isolated deed theft. The case was thrown out and later expunged from his record, according to Brown’s representatives.
Brown claims he was the victim of a Craigslist scam. Charles Gibbs, Brown’s defense attorney, told Billy Penn this was one of his client’s first forays into real estate investment.
“Amen used his own name to purchase the property — no one steals a property using their own name and then files publicly available documents,” Gibbs said, in a written statement.
Brown said he paid for the property in cash. Asked to describe the supposed Craigslist scammer, Brown said he was a Black male of indeterminate age, and that he’d left it to the notary to verify the identity.
In his telling, he was bilked out of $15,000 by the scammer. Yet even after the DA’s criminal investigation, Brown retained title to the property for years as its rightful owner fought to claw it back.
Lawyer Gibbs said Brown wasn’t aware he was sued in the separate civil case. He said Brown believed “since he wasn’t the owner, the original owner retained title” all along.
Housing advocates who analyzed the case said transcripts from the long proceeding show plainly that Brown did not return the deed until the judge ordered it.
“It’s very distressing, and unfortunately I don’t think it’s the first time elected officials or judges have been involved in nefarious real estate matters,” said Judy Berkman, senior counsel at Regional Housing Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that advocates for stronger penalties on deed fraud. “It’s a shame nobody did due diligence.”
Other lawsuits, debts piled up for state rep
Prior to seeking public office, Brown ran daycare facilities, dabbled in real estate, and, unbeknownst to voters, racked up other lawsuits in the process.
A year after Brown purchased a house from a dead man, a Fishtown developer sought more than $26,000 in damages from him for allegedly botching the rehab of a separate North Philadelphia rowhome. According to court filings, Brown, doing business as “Hammer Company 0709,” misrepresented his skillset and left it to the developer to redo much of the work.
The agreement was for an extensive rebuild, from running new electric and plumbing to building a new bathroom. Brown signed a contract saying he was up for the task, but then “completely failed to perform certain aspects of the work or performed the work negligently,” according to the 2015 breach of contract lawsuit. A judge ruled against Brown, who once again did not show up in court.
Brown’s attorney Gibbs said it was “a somewhat standard, although unfortunate, business dispute that could have been cured without litigation.”
In perhaps a surprising turn for a man accused of real estate fraud, Brown has trained his policy focus on housing rights and criminal justice since being sworn into office in January.
The first-term lawmaker in March introduced a bill seeking to halt sheriff sales, to make sure his constituents were “not being taken advantage of during a time where many are experiencing financial hardship.” This month, he introduced a controversial tough-on-crime bill that aims to increase minimum penalties in Pennsylvania for gun offenders with prior criminal records.
Brown’s legal problems do not end with the alleged fraud and contract breach.
Numerous agencies are pursuing Brown for debts — including the government that employs him. The Pa. Department of Revenue filed a lien against the legislator in March seeking more than $10,700 in unpaid income taxes.
A credit agency also filed against him in March to resolve debts after he defaulted on a $50,800 loan used to purchase a 2015 Cadillac Escalade. The luxury SUV was repossessed and sold at auction, but Brown is still on the hook for more $11,000, court records show.
In another recent lawsuit, a suburban company that provides services for people with special needs sued Brown to collect more than $64,000 on a personal loan given in 2018. Court records show attorneys sent service notices to Brown’s district office on Lancaster Avenue.
Gibbs said Brown believed that loan, taken out to rehab a property, was “due upon the sale of the property” and the lender rejected his proposed repayment plan. The legislator is also working on a payment schedule for the personal income taxes and the remaining balance on the auto loan, his lawyer said.
“Like many small entrepreneurs — especially during COVID — he has had ups-and-downs, but he has tried to or is in the process of paying what he owes,” Gibbs said.
Brown says court summons sent to wrong address
The West Philly-anchored district that Brown now leads has cycled through four representatives in just three years. Two of those officials left office facing criminal charges — an unprecedented corruption-driven turnover, even by Philadelphia standards.
Brown was first mentioned as a candidate for office in 2018 by one of his ill-fated predecessors.
Former state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, of no relation, left office in 2018 after a jury convicted her on bribery charges, at which time she recommended Amen Brown as her replacement. Voters instead selected Movita Johnson-Harrell. In 2019, state prosecutors charged Johnson-Harrell with stealing more than $500,000 from her own nonprofit. Following a special election in early 2020, Roni Green took over the district, but was unseated by Brown in an upset victory during the primary last June.
Brown’s campaign — and his past — received little attention in the media amid a global pandemic and a haywire presidential contest.
A West Philadelphia native, Brown grew up working odd jobs and helping put food on the table for his eight siblings, according to an Inquirer profile last year. He survived a gunshot at age 12. He graduated Overbrook High School, and later attended Philadelphia Community College, but left at age 22 to start a series of daycare businesses.
Brown also moved on to real estate. He flipped another property in 2014, the same year he signed the fraudulent deed to take possession of the house in South Philly, sparking the years-long civil battle that ended in favor of Presbery, the daughter of the deceased homeowner.
Presbery, who is now in her 60s and who identified herself in court as a Baptist bishop, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Due to the expungement, no public record exists of the original criminal case against Brown. Berkman, the attorney with Regional Housing Legal Services, noted the DA’s office historically only pursued charges for deed forgers who ran large-scale forgery operations, targeting people who stole numerous, typically more expensive properties.
Under District Attorney Larry Krasner, the DAO has increased economic crimes prosecutions in recent years, charging a number of cases involving repeat offenders. However, his office declined to comment on the civil deed fraud case, noting that the statute of limitations for prosecuting deed fraud is five years.
Brown insists he is the victim. Of his repeated failures to appear in court, he blamed the courts sending summonses to the wrong address.
“In many of these situations, Amen didn’t receive proper notice — it appears from the records that they either had the wrong address, he didn’t still live there, or had left that place of employment,” said Brown’s attorney, Gibbs.
The notary who gave a stamp of approval to the illicit deed transfer, Simone Woods, was named as a co-defendant in Presbery’s civil lawsuit. Reached by phone, Woods said she didn’t know anything about Brown or the resolved legal case, and declined to comment further.