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.

Until very recently, through the social agency, Freeman provided services directly to 15,000 of the city’s most vulnerable residents, and he has always bragged in his grant requests that when you add in his real estate ventures, he touches the lives of 195,000 people—one in every seven residents of Philadelphia.

He’s the largest developer in Germantown, and is also the community’s largest employer, which partly explains why politicians, both white and black, have always liked him: everyone from Governor and ex-mayor Ed Rendell, who used to call him “Manny,” to Congressman Bob Brady, who scored him a $250,000 federal earmark in 2009, to Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, whose daughter, Shakira, was paid $55.14 an hour by a Freeman-run nonprofit to “consult” with her mother, using walking-around money controlled by legislators and administered by Rendell’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). (Brady didn’t respond to an interview request, and Miller said her daughter worked hard, and that to single her out for scrutiny was “unfair to the children of elected officials.”)

When you start to add up the grants, tax breaks and low-interest loans, you find that Freeman has raised at least $100 million for his enterprise since the mid-’80s. To an oil company, $100 million is a rounding error, but for a nonprofit working in a single part of a single city, it’s unheard of. Crazy, though: When you visit Germantown, you can’t see where any of this money went. When I walked through Germantown this spring, with two black women who used to work for Settlement and have since become its critics — Anita Hamilton and Debra White-Roberts, of the Wister Neighborhood Council — what we saw was blight: a run-down, graffiti-tagged strip mall called Freedom Square, built with $400,000 from the city, $600,000 from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), and $600,000 from the federal government; three abandoned, boarded-up stucco homes on East Penn Street; and a gaping foundation pit on Wakefield Street, full of trash bags. Settlement “developed” these properties. “This is all we got,” White-Roberts told me. “We’re worse off than if the money hadn’t come here in the first place, because we don’t know where it went.”

Where did the money go? The story of the charter school provides a clue. In 2008, the School Reform Commission revealed that Freeman kept 14 upper-level managers on his bloated school payroll, ran massive deficits ($439,230 in one year alone), and used the school as a kitty to bail out his other failing entities, at one point loaning $50,000 in cash to a related company. In 2002, the charter school’s former education director, Linda Ralph-Kern, claimed in a lawsuit that Freeman had illegally transferred $538,000 from state funds in the school’s checking account to Germantown Settlement, then fired her for blowing the whistle. (The case later settled out of court.) The charter school is the Freeman enterprise in microcosm. He’s amazingly good at getting money and shockingly awful at spending it well. An incompetent manager, he is always in way over his head — though that might be a generous assessment, given that an accountant Freeman hired to look into his books in an attempt to mollify the city would tell me, “Emanuel Freeman is the Robert Mugabe of Germantown.” Mugabe is the dictator of Zimbabwe.

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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.