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.)