Emanuel Freeman: The Man Who Duped City Hall

Freeman, a.k.a. The Buddha, was supposedly rebuilding Germantown. And even though project after project failed, political heavyweights—from Ed Rendell to Bob Brady to Michael Nutter—kept giving him our money. Lots and lots of our money.

One day a few years back, after the situation had become unbearable, the students were called to an assembly, and Freeman took the stage. A fit, powerfully built black man near 60, he’s known as “The Buddha” because of the silent way he walks. He wore a finely tailored suit and a hat. He spoke in a round, resonant, soothing voice. There was no need to worry, Freeman told the children. Plans were under way for an expansion. Soon the school would have amenities that even kids in suburban schools would envy. Indoor tennis courts. A track. A pool. It was going to be better than ever.

According to Rogers, “The children would raise their hand and ask, ‘Can we have that? And can we have that?’ ‘Oh, sure, you can have that.’ And when? ‘Ooooooh, soon.’ And the kids, they were so excited.”

The promised renovation never happened. No pool, no indoor track, only escalating chaos until the School Reform Commission finally caught on in 2008 and held hearings. The commission eventually declined to renew Freeman’s charter, shutting down the school.

Freeman didn’t blink. The school was small potatoes, a tiny part of his empire. Directly or indirectly, Freeman has controlled at least 30 different companies concentrated in the city’s Northwest. As recently as 2007, he was president of at least 16 of the companies. Mostly nonprofits, they’ve got these impenetrable names — the Northwest Education Development Corporation; Urban Community Health Systems, Inc. Together, they’re known as “Germantown Settlement.”

In its most boiled-down form, Settlement is a social agency plus a housing company. Over the years, the agency side has provided a basket of services to truant children, foster children, the elderly, the poor, the HIV-infected, new mothers, families, and people facing foreclosure.

 There are many devoted people who have worked at Settlement and provided quality services, but Freeman has never been able to retain the most effective employees — he ends up stiffing them on their paychecks or their health insurance, or he lays them off, or else they simply quit in disgust, and service goes downhill. Settlement is the mother ship, the brand name; it’s the place where Freeman draws his salary — $156,000 in 2006 — and where he parks his large, late-model silver Mercedes-Benz, in the spot that says RESERVED FOR GERMANTOWN SETTLEMENT CEO. (Freeman’s wife, Emma Cummings-Freeman, is a VP at Settlement, in charge of its Department of Health and Human Services; she drives a gold Cadillac.) Freeman is also president and CEO of the Greater Germantown Housing and Development Corporation, or GGHDC, which as of 2006, the last time Freeman gave a full inventory to the city, owned at least 372 units of multi-family and tax-credit housing, 127 units of senior housing, and 170,500 square feet of retail space that stretched across a two-mile swath of the city. (Reached on his cell phone, Freeman asked me to send him questions via e-mail, but he didn’t reply to my subsequent e-mail, and his lawyers didn’t return my repeated calls.)

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  • Alexander

    This article was superbly written, informative and revealing in the simple fact that Philly remains a very corrupt and close-knit city. And we thought that we had progressed from here!

    • Shirley Harrison

      It’s unfortunate, that the old regime will remain in power, hidden by a maze of corruption. and maleficent cronies. Emanuel took advantage of the trust, friendship, and respect, a neighborhood had for the Freeman family. He was raised by gospel singers and Pastors. In the same neighborhood he raped and pillaged.

  • Maxine

    I absolutely cannot believe the audacity of the public officials in this city. Here it is the City owes small business owners Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars for legitimate work that was done, and t

  • Stephanie

    I knew Emanuel “way back when” when community voter registration and self-determination were waves of the times. Having spent much of my adult life away from Philly, I didn’t know Emanuel had morphed from respected 1970s activist to greedy profiteer. I am so disappointed.

  • Lauren

    I read with great disgust the article “Emanuel Freeman: The Man Who Duped City Hall” earlier this week in Philadelphia Magazine. I’m infuriated at the waste, mismanagement, seeming corruption, and overall disregard for the residents—by not only Freeman, but also by the Northwest’s elected leaders – who are supposed to have their constituents’ best interest at heart.
    Freeman received $100 million over the last 20 years via grants, tax breaks and low-interest loans and what do we have to show for it? A walk through Germantown is appalling: downtrodden buildings, trash on the streets, failing businesses, underperforming schools, crime, empty lots. Is THIS what $100 million buys?
    Where would our community be today if that money was put to proper use? We could have better schools; thriving businesses; help for mothers and children; community organizations that actually HELP the community. In short, Germantown could be—and should be– a shining example for other neighborhoods in the city. What a wasted opportunity—especially for our youth.
    While Councilwoman Donna Reid Miller seems to have gotten the majority of the scrutiny, I demand to know where our other Northwest elected officials stand on this. My State Representative, John Myers, should be as infuriated as I…

  • Lauren

    yet so far we’ve not heard a single word from Myers on Freeman, Miller or their financial rape of Germantown. In fact, Jason Fagone’s article indicates that Myers is in bed with Miller, Freeman and others who’ve literally robbed the community. He writes, that Myers was part of “Settlement’s freshman class” and “had graduated to positions of real power in the city, thanks in part to Freeman’s connections.”
    And what’s more, despite everything, Freeman still believes he has a pipeline and working relationship with our elected officials. He wants Miller’s assistance to “embark on a significant venture” located behind the failing school he wasted taxpayer money on. What’s wrong with this picture and where does it end?
    It’s time that we demand better. Better for our children, better for working parents struggling to get by, better for our local businesses, better for our community as a whole. It’s time we demand more from our leaders. I am a professional working woman, a mother, a wife, a taxpaying resident and I now accept the challenge of being a community activist. I urge others to stand with me in a fight to demand that the funds invested in our district are put to…

  • Lauren

    good use and to begin to reinvest in Northwest Philadelphia — this time for real.

    Lauren Anderson Youngblood
    Community Activist

  • Steve

    The LAST thing we need is another Youngblood in office. She is just as corrupt as the others in this article, and sold her district away just to stay in office! Sorry, we will fight tooth and nail to make sure that NO Youngblood ever makes in in office again!

  • Pat

    If this article is of interest to you and you oppose the pillaging that has taken place in this great Philadelphia neighborhood, please check out a new Face Book page called Battle for Germantown and become a friend.

  • Enough’s Enough

    I observed Freeman and Settlement in action while working on site but for another employer. A dazed and confused finance wing, late paychecks, the hopeless charter school, and both Mr. and Mrs. Freeman’s aloof manner and fancy cars- all as bad as the article describes. I hope Freeman’s ride is over and other leaders can step up in Germantown.

  • Rozalind

    You won’t hear from John Myers because he was a part of it as well. He sits on the Board of Germantown Settlement and his wife was on their payroll for quite some time. So you should be appalled with him as well. Every last one of them needs to payback all the money they stole from the city and state. LISC had better take a look at their executive director as well, he’s the former COO of Germantown Settlement.