Meet the D.A. Candidate Who Led Philly’s Civil Asset Forfeiture System
Beth Grossman was a prosecutor for more than 20 years, serving in every unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.
From 2007 to 2015, the Republican led the city’s public nuisance task force, where she shut down nuisance bars, cleaned up abandoned lots, and cracked down on out-of-state slumlords, she says. The task force also handled civil asset forfeiture, which enables district attorneys to seize people’s cash and homes even if they are not convicted of a crime. The system has come under fire nationwide from both liberals and conservatives in recent years; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said this month it “has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”
Grossman is proud of her time in charge of the city’s civil asset forfeiture program. She says she used the law to seize drug dealers’ homes and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. “A neighbor called to thank me for getting rid of a drug house next door to him. He told me that he could now sit on his porch again,” she says. “Enjoying the basic joys and comforts of one’s home without crime negatively affecting his or her safety and quality of life is something that everyone in Philadelphia should be able to do.”
As the only declared Republican in the D.A.’s race, Grossman is expected to easily win the GOP primary. When political observers say that she’ll face an uphill battle in the general election because of the Democrats’ voter registration edge in Philly, her campaign notes that Donald Trump got more than 109,000 votes here and that D.A. candidates typically need only tens of thousands of votes to win.
Grossman sat down in January with Philly Mag for an interview in a pizza shop in Kensington, the neighborhood where her family’s candy shop was once located. We also asked her follow-up questions afterward. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Read our Q&As with the other D.A. candidates in the May 16th election here.
Beth Grossman’s Platform at a Glance
- Death penalty: “I wonder whether it is at this point even economically feasible.”
- Civil asset forfeiture: Strongly supports, and used to lead the D.A.’s unit that oversees the practice.
- Cash bail: “I think we should have cash bail. … I think people need to be treated fairly and equally throughout the justice system.”
- Gifts: She wouldn’t accept gifts as D.A.
- Super PACs: Strongly against.
- On how to fight crime: Enforce the laws, implement diversionary programs, focus on community outreach, and deal with quality-of-life issues.
- On whether bad cops are sufficiently held accountable: “Every day, there are African-American families who fear for the safety of their young men on the streets in their potential interactions with police. Every day, as well, there are families of law-enforcement officers who fear that their loved ones may not return home that day because of violent crime.”
Why are you running for district attorney?
I spent 21-and-a-half years in the D.A.’s office. I served in every division, and I loved that job more than anything else. I was so proud to be a prosecutor and to be able to help people who were victims of crimes, to enforce the laws of the Commonwealth as well as to improve quality of life for people. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the public and I want to continue it — to do it again.
What are the biggest accomplishments or proudest moments of your career?
So hard to pinpoint. I am proud of my entire 21-year career with the District Attorney’s office. I served in every division, which has given me in-depth experience as to how the office operates overall and on a day-to-day level. Something of which I am proud — it’s something so small, yet so big. A neighbor called to thank me for getting rid of a drug house next door to him. He told me that he could now sit on his porch again. Enjoying the basic joys and comforts of one’s home without crime negatively affecting his or her safety and quality of life is something that everyone in Philadelphia should be able to do. That call has stuck with me for years.
You were previously registered as a Democrat. Now you’re a Republican. Why did you switch parties?
In the fall of 2013, when a lot of Democratic public officials were beginning to be investigated or pleading guilty, I realized that the Democratic Party here in Philadelphia — my focus is always Philadelphia; when you are serving the public in Philadelphia, you sort of have that myopic view — many Democratic public officials were getting in trouble and violating their office and it was not serving me. Because besides being a public servant who took my oath seriously … it’s been too much of a Democratic stronghold in this city for 65 years. And so I left the party, and I became a Philadelphia Republican because I think we need a better political balance in the city because when it’s so one-sided, it creates an unhealthy imbalance and people tend to get into trouble.
At the press conference announcing your candidacy, you declined to say who you voted for in the presidential election. Will you say who you voted for today? I think it’s of interest to the public.
It may be of interest to the public, but it’s not relevant of my ability and experience of 21 years of being a prosecutor and to what I want to do with the District Attorney’s office. I feel like it’s a situation where you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, and sometimes it’s sort of analogous to a food label. You might look at the label, but sometimes you have to turn around and see what the ingredients are. People need to see beyond the “label” of me and see who am I out of all the candidates. I’m the one who has had the longest tenure in the D.A.’s office. I have been there; I never left to go do something different until I had enough of the office and because I didn’t like what I was seeing there. … And I also gained experience by being chief-of-staff [at the Licenses & Inspections department] as to how to oversee and manage the department.
How do you think District Attorney Seth William has done on the job?
I am absolutely and utterly disappointed with what he has done. The office is not to be used, and the position of district attorney is not to be used to line your pockets in any way, shape or form. As D.A., you take your own oath and your oath is to operate to the highest ethical standards with transparency, with integrity. And the only thing that you should get is the satisfaction of serving the public to the best of your ability, to run a well-run office and to hold yourself as an absolute example. I think more than almost any other public servant, those who are law enforcement officials should be held to a higher standard, because when you are vested with enforcing the laws, following the Constitution and dealing most significantly with peoples’ liberty, you have to hold yourself to the highest of standards. So overall, I am absolutely disappointed. But let me just say this: The men and women [in the D.A.’s office], my former colleagues, work hard and I am proud of them. I was proud of them. I continue to be proud of them. And I just ask them to keep doing the wonderful job that they do.
I’m asking all the district attorney candidates what they think about some of the more high-profile decisions that Williams made. One was that he referred to the Attorney General’s office a case involving an alleged assault by labor leader John Dougherty. Do you think that was the right call?
I believe part of his explanation was that he had had dealings with him and some type of a relationship. So in light of that, yeah, I don’t have a problem with that. I think that that’s appropriate if you feel that there is a conflict of interest where the public may say, “OK, you need a clean, even slate to do that.” It’s fair to anybody accused of crime.
When Lynne Abraham was the district attorney, she referred cases involving elected officials to state and federal authorities as a matter of policy. What do you think of that?
I think the district attorney does have a responsibility to prosecute elected officials. Absolutely. We have statutes that pertain to municipal corruption. They need to be used. But I will also say that every case needs to be looked at on its own individual basis. What is it? Do I know this person? But to make a whole blanket decision, like, “I am not going to handle public corruption”? No. I would not do that.
Another high-profile decision Williams made was keeping on his staff three employees who were ensnared in the Porngate scandal. He made them undergo sensitivity training, but did not fire them. Do you think that was the right call?
I can’t speak to what went into the decision-making process to hire these individuals. So I can’t comment on the specifics of that, nor with regard to what decision-making authority went into keeping them and having them have sensitivity training. I was never privy to any of that report, any of the emails. If I had more knowledge of it, I think I could give you a fair answer. Now for general things like that, there should be no issues of anything that could be construed as a hostile work environment in any office, including the D.A.’s office. There shouldn’t be any negative attitudes toward females or anybody. But as to that specific, I would feel uncomfortable answering because I don’t know the full facts.
Some of the emails that were exchanged were made public. Have you seen those?
No, I have not. …The report that came out or what was in the paper is that, I think, Mr. Costanzo did not send any, nor did Mr. Blessington. I can’t speak for Mr. Fina, I don’t know.
Fina did send them.
Fina did send them and he has since left the office. What I can tell you is this: At the end of my tenure in the District Attorney’s office, Mr. Blessington was my chief and I was in the insurance fraud unit, and the man is the most respectful, intelligent individual I have ever met. He was a wonderful supervisor, he’s incredibly smart, and he never treated me unfairly, inappropriately. Only just as a supportive supervisor, and he treated me with the upmost respect.
Williams also decided to not charge ex-Eagles player LeSean McCoy for his role in an alleged bar fight with two off-duty cops. Do you think that was the right choice?
These are such hard questions to answer because I don’t know what was there, I don’t know what they viewed, I don’t know what the evidence is. So it’s very hard as a prosecutor: You have to look at the facts. Every case is different. And, look, I only know what has been written in the newspaper and I cannot make an informed decision on that. I wish I could for the purposes of this interview, but I can’t and I’m not going to hypothesize.
Some D.A. candidates have announced that they won’t take donations from criminal defense attorneys who they might stand across from in court. Do you agree with that idea?
I’ve not received any so far. That’s something that I would have to think about and discuss with my team. I think everybody is free to contribute to whatever candidates they want, and also, criminal defense attorneys interact every day with the District Attorney’s office. They have a stake in determining a D.A. that they want for good reasons — not somebody who has fallen into the trouble that District Attorney Williams has. So there is nothing wrong with defense attorneys contributing to candidates that they want because they want a fair and ethical D.A. They want a fair and ethical and well-run District Attorney’s office. I don’t think that there is anything of a conflict for that. I really don’t.
Would you accept gifts as D.A.?
Absolutely not. You accept nothing. Zero. I don’t care what it is. You say, “Thank you very much, but I cannot accept it.” And it’s better to be safe than sorry. You take nothing.
Do you think super PACs should be involved in the DA’s race? Would you be OK with it if a super PAC supported you?
No and no.
Are you seeking support from the Fraternal Order of Police?
You’ve prosecuted police officers in the past. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yes. For two years, I was in the special investigations unit that investigates municipal corruption, including those of … police officers. That was certainly part of my role as a prosecutor. If you break the law, you break the law. I don’t care who you are, whether you were a public official, whether you were a police officer, or whether you were a citizen. You violate the law, it is our obligation to prosecute people to the fullest extent, but fairly and justly and equally as everybody should be prosecuted.
At your campaign announcement, you said that you would be an agent of change as D.A. How can you be an effective agent of change if you came from the office that Seth Williams leads?
Because I don’t want to run office the way that he did. Number one, you have to set the example for your entire office and for the public to see that this as a leader who is trustworthy, who has integrity, and who is going to do right. You set the example for your prosecutors, for your support staff, for police personnel. It all comes from you. You set the tone. And I think just not being part of the same Democratic machine, it’s something different. It’s something refreshing. Municipal corruption is important and it must be prosecuted regardless of which party which it came from. I think there’s all kinds of creative ways that you can improve public safety, and I have many ideas of that especially deals with small instances and quality of life.
What are your ideas to improve quality-of-life issues?
For eight years, I served as the chief of the public nuisance task force unit. That dealt with quality-of-life issues, including abandoned properties, lots that were full of trash, and out-of-state landlords who are not taking care of rental properties, drug properties, nuisance bars. A public nuisance is so hard to define because it varies from block to block, but I guess it’s sort of like pornography: People know it when they see it. There’s all kinds of creative ways to deal with that, which might not even necessarily deal with arresting people for low-level crimes.
For example, in a commercial corridor, just cleaning up or making a storefront look a little better, whether it’s painting the second stories a color that looks different or, instead of having second stories boarded up, owners put glass windows in them. It just changes things and people begin to get more ownership. Toward the end of my tenure at L&I — and I wish I had known this when I was in the D.A.’s office — I began working in the commerce department, and there are all kinds of amazing ways to change things. I forget what school it was, but there was a little patch of ground near an elementary school with benches, and people would sit there smoking weed, doing whatever, and you can’t put a police car sitting on them all day or take them out of service. So instead of making small arrests for that or showing some citation because it’s marijuana, you put 10 sprinklers up. It’s almost an environmental solution to a small nuisance problem. And that way, you don’t waste police resources and it’s just an easy thing to deal with.
What’s your plan to fight crime?
To enforce the laws of the Commonwealth justly and equally. Holistic and creative diversionary programs must be explored and implemented. If someone receives counseling, support and/or treatment, there is a better chance that he or she will not return to the criminal justice system. Gun and violent crimes must be prosecuted and appropriate sentences sought. Additionally, I would also like to focus on community outreach, dealing with public nuisance and quality-of-life issues. Collaboration with other city agencies, [community development corporations] and community stakeholders allows small issues to be addressed before they become bigger ones. An improved community — lower crime, higher safety and beautification efforts — create stronger ownership of communities.
Philadelphia is experiencing an opioid epidemic. What is the D.A.’s role in addressing that?
I think the D.A.’s role really now has to look beyond just prosecution. That’s not going to do it. People and addiction is such a serious thing, where I think we can all say that, look, what is jail going to do? It’s not, so I think it needs to be a combination of prevention treatment and there might play some role for prosecutors, I would say, especially going after the dealers who were the pill mills, the ones who are writing scripts for like $50 and not doing anything because opioids are so addictive. We have a strong offender unit that works with other agencies to really focus on who is funneling heroin into Philadelphia. But number one, we have to get back into schools, whether it’s D.A.R.E. programs or something else, and educating kids as young as fifth and sixth grade to show them a picture and be like, “Look, this is somebody’s first arrest. This is what they look like after their tenth arrest because they’re addicted to meth and they’re addicted to heroin or they’re addicted to pills.” That visual can be so shocking. And it’s sad to say this, but I think the younger they are educated about this, it’s more important.
I know that the police department, the D.A.’s office, they’re part of the MacArthur Grant, and are looking into … where there’s some way even before arrest that we can get people into residential treatment to get them treated. It is such a difficult issue because people have to be ready to get help. And I know that it takes maybe five or six, if not more times, to finally succeed in getting clean. But throwing those who are addicted in prison, that’s not going to do it. We’re in a different place from the ’90s, when it was very harsh sentencing laws, we’re sending people to jail. The pendulum has swung in a different way and I think we all have to be open to look at more holistic solutions.
As D.A., how would you deal with drug users in general?
Obviously, it depends on the individual and his or her criminal record, what drug is being used, and whether there are severe addiction issues. Treatment is truly the best option to help those with severe addiction issues, not repeated trips through the criminal justice system.
Other candidates have proposed charging more people with homicide who have delivered drugs resulting in death. What do you think of that approach?
I recall only seeing one such case during my time in the District Attorney’s office. These cases are difficult to prove, but if the evidence is there, I would certainly explore bringing homicide charges against that person or persons. We are seeing an overwhelming number of overdoses, be it from pills or heroin, including that which is laced with fentanyl.
What’s your take on cash bail?
I think we should have cash bail.
Would you change it all?
That’s something that I would have to explore and see.
A number of candidates are calling for cash bail changes, and they argue that poor people often can’t afford very low amounts of cash bail that middle-class or wealthy people can afford. Do you think that’s problematic?
I do think is problematic. I think people need to be treated fairly and equally throughout the justice system. It’s kind of the same thing as restitution. Those who are not as wealthy as others are going to have a harder time making restitution. Are they going to be penalized for that, for not being able to make restitution payments? So it does bare thought.
I think for bail, when people are coming in, that’s the time for certain levels, certain circumstances, certain factors that go into it. But beyond that, I don’t think I can make any blanket statement
What’s your position on the death penalty?
Looking at Pennsylvania, I wonder whether it is at this point even economically feasible. The last, I believe, three times that somebody has been executed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been those that have waived any of their appeals, post-conviction. Are we really putting our resources into the right thing? Because we don’t use it. And you’re talking about cases that happened 30, 25, 20 years ago. People die. Witnesses move on, and to a degree, families never get closure as a result of that, and things go up and down the courts, but to the federal courts. Is our budget being expended appropriately? Do I believe in it? I do in certain cases, but again, our state is a little bit different from others such as Texas and Florida. We are not using it.
Can you talk about your job handling the D.A.’s public nuisance task force, which encompassed civil asset forfeiture? And what is your take on civil asset forfeiture now?
Pursuant to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania drug forfeiture law — well, there’s two issues with it, real property and assets from drug-dealing — permits the Commonwealth or the District Attorney’s office or the Attorney General’s office to forfeit drug proceeds.
Under D.A. Williams, were you happy with the way it worked?
Yes, because drug dealers should not profit from the narcotics trade, and as far as forfeiting houses, the story that consistently gets lost or ignored are those of the neighbors who were suffering because there were drug properties on their block. That’s never mentioned. People who can’t sit on their porches, people who are afraid for their children to pass drug houses on their way to and from school. The story that often gets neglected is that these are properties owned by out-of-state landlords who do not care how they are maintained at all and are only using it for economic enrichment without properly maintaining them, commercial properties that are not being taken care of.
Around the corner from here is the warehouse where we lost two firefighters, where there were out-of-state landlords who did not properly maintain the property. So it’s an effective tool to maintain public safety and make things safe for neighbors. As chief of the public nuisance task force, I never wanted to say to a neighbor who is suffering because there was a drug property on the block, “Why don’t you move?” It’s not for that person to move. These are folks who have lived on their block for 30, 40, 50 years and they’ve seen it turn. And when you live next door to a drug property and you can’t sit on your porch anymore, that’s not right.
Critics of civil asset forfeiture say that the proceeds should go to the school district instead of the District Attorney’s office because doing the latter creates a perverse financial incentive. Do you think the assets should continue going to the D.A.’s office?
I think it should remain going to the District Attorney’s office as the statute is written now. That is how it reads. Now if the legislature should happen to change it, of course, we would abide by the law whatever it does.
You’ve brought up cases in which a house becomes a drug-dealing house. We’ve also seen investigations in the press that aren’t as extreme as that. One involved the Sourovelis family in Philadelphia. Chris Sourovelis’ son was caught dealing $40 worth of drugs to an undercover police officer, and then the D.A.’s office tried to seize his home. Chris and his wife claimed that this was the first time they had ever heard about him dealing drugs. What’s the logic in something like that?
What upset me most about that property — and let me make it very clear it was heroin — and what upset me very much is what that showed me is that heroin arrived in the Northeast [section of the city]. In the 7th Police District, we don’t see a lot of crime. And that was very startling for me. I attended the symposium at Temple University in November about the opioid crisis, and they talked about opioids and heroin. Out of 10 people, I believe, it was two of those who become immediately addicted to heroin the first time out of the gate, and that’s what really, really disturbed me.
Now there were other factors that went into that particular case, which involved a pit bull, not opening the door, evidence being flushed down the toilet. So it’s not quite as cut-and-dry as the press [said it was]. But it really, really disturbs me because heroin has now hit outer reaches of the city.
Is it fair to seize the home of someone who has nothing to do with the crime, though?
That is called constructive possession. And again, every case is different based upon facts.
Critics say that during your time in charge of civil asset forfeiture program in the D.A.’s office, there were many seizures of amounts of money as small as $50, which led to the perception that the D.A.’s office was “nickel and diming” people. Do you want to respond to that criticism?
Drug-dealing is drug-dealing, and the statute does not set a limit on what narcotics assets can be seized or not seized. If you are making a sale and you just created another heroin addict on our streets, there’s consequences. You should not be permitted to profit from that. It’s that simple.
What do you think of the D.A.’s unit aimed at reviewing potentially wrongful convictions? Has it been successful under D.A. Williams?
Again, I have not been there so I cannot answer that. I don’t know what cases they’re looking at. Do I think it’s important? I do. Now, whether another party, another group, another independent agency should be looking at them as opposed to in-house? I don’t know, maybe. Is that something to be explored? Possibly.
Do you think there is a racial disparity and charging and sentencing? And if so, how would you address it?
I can only speak for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. As far as charging, I certainly hope in no way, shape or form that that is going on when charges are initiated. To my knowledge, I don’t think it’s a problem in the D.A.’s office, unless statistically there’s something that I don’t know. But I would certainly hope not. I think you have to look at what the facts of the case, what the person’s criminal record is. Now with regards to sentencing, that’s with the judge. But cases, as I said before, should only be looked at as to the person’s criminal record, what the charges are, what are the crimes, what is he being convicted of. And race had better, in no way, shape or form, play any role in that, or gender or sexual identification or anything. That should play no role. What matters are the facts. What matters is what this person has been convicted of it. What is his or her background? There can not be any role of that going on.
Black Lives Matter argues that police officers often aren’t held accountable when they commit crimes. Do you agree with that? Do you think that Seth Williams has done a good job or not of prosecuting police officers who have broken the law? [Editor’s note: This question was asked after our initial meeting in January.]
Now that his ethics violations have prevented Seth Williams from seeking re-election, I’m not going to campaign by looking backwards at his record. My interest is in looking forward to creating a District Attorney’s office that is truly independent of the political machine and devoted entirely to public safety and quality of life for all Philadelphians. With regard to the tense relations between the African-American community and law enforcement, we simply must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
There are two truths which need to inform everything we do. Every day, there are African-American families who fear for the safety of their young men on the streets in their potential interactions with police. Every day, as well, there are families of law enforcement officers who fear that their loved ones may not return home that day because of violent crime. Both true. Both matter.
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