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.

As the city, state and federal funding to Settlement went up and up — from $1.6 million in 1998, the year before Burgess died, to a whopping $6.8 million in 2003 — service went down. By January 2003, for instance, the white-stucco houses Settlement built on Penn Street had badly leaking roofs and foundation walls that were sinking and cracked, and the empty foundation hole on Wakefield Street was such an obvious scar on the neighborhood that even John Street took note of it during a walking tour of Germantown later that year, griping to a representative of Settlement, “You’re not doing a damn thing with it — tear that crap down.”

Meanwhile, Freeman and his deputies were complaining to the city of large shortfalls and “cash flow issues.” In 2003, the year he took in $6.8 million in taxpayer funds, Freeman’s current liabilities exceeded his current assets by nearly $2.5 million; the following year, his negative working capital gap increased to a staggering $4.8 million.

Did anyone at the city notice? Well, yes. It was impossible not to. In 1998 and ’99, Freeman stiffed the city, state and federal governments for $208,100 in payroll taxes, and in 2000, the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD) tagged Settlement as “high-risk” — a shout-out to future auditors, saying, basically, Watch out for this guy. In 2001, OHCD temporarily suspended Freeman’s contract because he was delinquent on submitting a required financial audit.

OHCD did its job, but it was the exception to the rule. For the most part, bureaucrats at other agencies, namely Commerce, the Department of Human Services, the Redevelopment Authority, and the City Controller—the city’s own independent fiscal watchdog — simply seemed to note the anomalies in memos and file them away.

Also passing unnoticed was a significant event in the evolution of social change in Germantown. In 2003, Freeman bought a four-bedroom home with a fireplace and central air in suburban Wyncote. The champion of building community from within was moving out of the community, for good.

primitive body ruled by tradition, especially a tradition called “Councilmanic Prerogative,” in which the 16 other Councilpeople let a Councilperson do whatever she wants in her district in exchange for her vote on broader legislation. “If there’s an exception to this prerogative, I can’t remember it,” says Zack Stalberg, of the reform group Committee of Seventy. And so Donna Reed Miller could easily checkmate Freeman’s opponents just by making a phone call. If you were a white activist or a private developer who wanted access to the inner circle of the Germantown machine, you were routinely branded an “outsider,” a political opportunist, or one of what Freeman called the “Doubting Thomases.” “It was basically a closed family,” says Irv Ackelsberg, a white consumer lawyer in Germantown who ran against Miller for Council in 2007 and lost narrowly in the Democratic primary. “You were in or you were out.” (Miller says, “Irv hates me now, because he ran against me and lost. Prior to that, Irv and I were great.”)

And if you were a black activist opposed to Freeman, your challenge was an especially delicate one; any scandal that hurt Freeman would hurt you, too. When a white leader fails, it’s never a crisis of white leadership, but when a black leader fails, it’s always a crisis of black leadership, and the fallout makes it harder for good people to get anything done.

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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.