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.