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.

Why such love from the top? “Jason, I don’t remember this,” Rendell says. “I’m in a fog.” He does remember that Settlement “was highly regarded,” he says. “People would come and talk to Emanuel Freeman about how he did stuff.” Rendell says that when he read about the bankruptcy in the newspapers, he found it “shocking”: “I just have no idea how that happened.”

It’s true that in the early to mid-’90s, Settlement was basically a functional operation, held together by the twin forces of Burgess’s pragmatism and the legacy of Dave Richardson’s idealism.

Things started to go haywire in 1995, when Richardson died, followed four years later by Burgess. “That unity broke up,” says a black political activist who was close with Richardson. “Everybody wanted to be somebody.” By 1998, Settlement’s freshman class had graduated to positions of real power in the city, thanks in part to Freeman’s connections: Donna Reed Miller was a City Councilwoman, Steve “Wassi” Vaughn was her chief of staff, and John Myers was the state rep; Mjenzi Traylor was the city’s deputy director of commerce, and Herb Wetzel, co-founder of Settlement’s housing company, was soon to be executive director of the Redevelopment Authority. In 2000, Freeman moved Settlement’s headquarters from its traditional home, a modest three-story house on East Penn Street, to a 20,000-square-foot commercial suite on Wayne Avenue, purchased in part with an $800,000 second mortgage from the PIDC.

“When Melvin was alive,” says James Igess, a former Settlement employee, “he’d tell Emanuel, ‘All money is not good money. We gotta stick with what our niche is.’” With Burgess dead, Freeman expanded into uncharted territory — the charter school, for instance. He hired new executives and a small army of consultants. Until then, it seems no one had questioned Freeman’s commitment to the community. His tactics, maybe, but not his heart. “Once he got that big money,” black activist Anita Hamilton says, “I saw big changes comin’.”

Increasingly, Freeman spent his grants in questionable ways. For instance, in 2002, Freeman asked the state for $55,000 to “enhance and promote the image and services of Germantown Settlement.” With the grant money, he hired a PR consultant, who billed the state for attending Freeman’s induction ceremony into the Germantown Historical Society and getting a story about it placed in four newspapers. In 2004, a subsidiary of Settlement called the Germantown Community Collaborative Board, a relic of the failed Annie E. Casey project, received $10,000 for “community engagement and strategic planning,” but it actually spent the cash on parties and clothes, including a $762 political event for Donna Reed Miller at a Chinese restaurant; at least $1,000 in pizzas, hoagies and fried chicken; and, weirdest of all, 96 pairs of women’s panties, sizes XL and XXL.

This grant came from the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Development. (Miller said that she “wouldn’t know that $700 came from a DCED grant unless somebody told me.” DCED eventually forced Settlement to pay most of this grant back, but that was a rare exception; since 2000, DCED has given Settlement and its related entities nearly $2 million.)

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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.