Philly Sheriff’s top lawyer retires after illegal contract revelation

Rochelle Bilal looks out a window

Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The second-in-command at the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office is leaving the embattled agency a week after PlanPhilly reported that the office issued an illegal six-year contract to online auction company Bid4Assets under his watch.

Office spokesperson Theresa Lundy confirmed that Undersheriff Curtis Douglas, chief legal advisor to Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, has announced his retirement, effective imminently.

Lundy described the move as the end to a long career in government that included prior stints at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the city’s U.S. Attorney.

“Undersheriff Douglass [sic] is currently retiring from decades of public service!” wrote Lundy, in an email. “This is great news.”

The retirement comes less than a year after Bilal hired Douglas and just two weeks out from his appearance at tense City Council hearings where he defended the office’s choice to resume sheriff sales and outsource auctions of foreclosed real estate to Bid4Assets.

It was Douglas who responded to council’s questions about the decision to restart sales of the distressed property on a private platform at a time when many property owners were experiencing economic stress due to the pandemic. He explained the move as a response to an urgent need to resume sales even though in-person auctions couldn’t be held due to COVID-19 restrictions. Those factors led the office to jettison traditional contracting procedures and select the company outright, Douglas said.

“You wanted to do a six-year contract because there was an emergency right now?” asked Councilmember Helen Gym, at the time.

“That’s correct,” Douglas responded. “We did an extensive vetting process.”

But it later emerged that the office had failed to vet its own contracting process.

The Law Department confirmed last week that it had not prepared or reviewed the Bid4Assets contract, a violation of elementary contracting provisions contained in Philadelphia’s city charter. City lawyers weren’t able to say last Friday how the violation will affect the legality of hundreds of sales conducted through the platform over the last month.

But seven days later, the office confirmed Douglas’ impending retirement. The controversy around the resumption and sudden shift to online auctions also culminated in a court order suspending sheriff sales through the summer.

Douglas’ departure comes after a string of high-profile departures from the office since Bilal was sworn in early last year. He was hired in Summer 2020 to replace former Undersheriff Sommer Miller, who Bilal fired months into her tenure. Miller has since sued, alleging the sheriff dismissed her for reporting sexual harassment and corruption in the office.

Two other ex-employees — former chief financial officer Brett Mandel and former human resources manager Anitra Paris — have filed similar suits.

Douglas’ exodus from the office marks his second retirement from city government. The attorney, who is in his early 60s, retired in 2016 from a post as a deputy in the troubled administration of former DA Seth Williams. At the time, sources speculated that the departure may have been linked to anything from Douglas’ push for office reforms to his alleged violation of the city’s residency requirement.

After joining the Sheriff’s Office, Douglas was charged with legal review on behalf of the office — but Bilal herself must also approve all contracts.

The sheriff initially ran as reformer for an office that has seen years of scandals across multiple sheriffs’ administrations, including some focused on contracting irregularities. The office, which is an independently elected branch of city government, has faced repeated calls for abolition, which were renewed in light of the charter violation that came to light last week.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article included a headline that referred imprecisely to Undersheriff Curtis Douglas’ retirement as a resignation. 

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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