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.

“It was the only time I can remember the mayor’s office getting involved in getting a contractor paid,” David Smith says. Vendors are normally paid within 60 to 90 days, a buffer that allows the city to manage its cash flow in an era of nine-figure deficits. Settlement, though, would hand-deliver an invoice on a Tuesday, and a call would come on Wednesday, demanding payment on Friday — a three-day turnaround. Once the managing director’s office approved the payments, they were sent over to the City Controller, Alan Butkovitz, whose job it is to examine all payments to city contractors before the money leaves the city’s accounts. Butkovitz would then approve a physical check for five figures. Soon afterward, a runner working for Freeman would come to the Municipal Services Building on JFK Boulevard and whisk the check back to Germantown, into fiscal oblivion. The payments continued well into the Nutter administration. (Harvey Rice, the first deputy city controller, claims the Controller had no choice but to approve the payments: “[Settlement] served families at high risk.” Then he became agitated, accused me of “bias,” and threatened to “go right to your editor.”)

“We need to get together and talk,” Miller e-mailed Freeman in mid-2008. “We can not let this agency go under. God Bless you and GS [Germantown Settlement].”

From here until the bankruptcy declaration, Miller would exchange at least 50 e-mails with Freeman, strategizing on ways to buy more time with the Nutter administration to keep Settlement alive. I recently asked Miller why, after a decade of persistent failure, she continued to believe Settlement was worth saving. “This agency is more than 100 years old!” she said, spreading her hands wide. “Come on! … I’ve been referring people to Settlement all my adult life. When I was a kid, my grandmother lived down the street from one of the buildings, and I’d see the kids going to day camp.”

Depending on the topic, Miller was either irritated (the lack of private development in Germantown), befuddled (Settlement’s failures), or sad to the point of lowering her voice to a whisper (Emanuel Freeman). She insisted she never knew if Settlement was doing “a good job or a bad job,” adding, “I always thought they provided pretty good service.” What about Freedom Square? “It’s an eyesore now, but back when it was built, it was like, wow.” The Penn Street homes? “Yeah,” she exhaled, “that’s a mess.” The foundation pit on Wakefield? “Empty lots. I can’t tell you there. What I gather, what I heard, is that one of the contractors didn’t do the right thing.” The YWCA fiasco? “I thought that they could potentially do it. Plus, they brought people in. These financers, I guess.”

Finally, I asked Miller about the charter school. She looked away. “You know, I asked them once, why did y’all start a charter school?” Her voice trailed off. “They said it came from a parents meeting. … ”