The Rochelle Bilal Fiasco Is Everything That’s Wrong With Philly Politics

From the candidate who promised the end of "scandal after scandal after scandal" in the Sheriff's Office, we get … a scandal in the Sheriff's Office.

rochelle bilal sheriff's office sheriff

Rochelle Bilal, photo courtesy of her 2019 campaign.

The late, great poet and civil rights icon Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, do better.” She also famously said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

It’s that wisdom that comes to mind when I reflect on the never-ending political scandals in Philadelphia. Elected officials — those voted into office by the people, those who swear to protect and serve our interests faithfully — should already know better than to betray us. And we shouldn’t give second chances to those who have shown us they’re willing to.

Which brings me to the hot mess that, once again, is the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office.

Newly elected Sheriff Rochelle Bilal ran on a campaign that promised to end “scandal after scandal after scandal” and “remove the dark cloud” created by her immediate predecessors — one of whom, former sheriff John Green, is serving a federal prison sentence for accepting bribes, while the other, former sheriff Jewell Williams, was hit with multiple sexual harassment allegations and settlements. (He has denied the claims.) And yet that dark cloud hasn’t dissipated.

In fewer than 100 days on the job, Bilal has already fired her chief financial officer, Brett Mandel for, he claims, expressing concerns to her about the office’s “off-budget” spending. Mandel, a former deputy city controller and longtime fiscal watchdog who consulted on finances for Bilal’s transition team, used the term “slush fund” when describing how the office spent money collected from sheriff’s sales and serving writs, among other things.

Mandel’s most glaring allegation is that Bilal gave six-figure contracts, to be paid out from the same fund, to consultants who previously worked on her campaign or helped with her transition: Micah C.T. Sims, Teresa Lundy, Rodney Little and Correy Thomas. A spokesperson for Bilal wouldn’t confirm or deny to me if these contracts were signed by the office; none of the named consultants has confirmed or denied this as well.

At this point, you’d think Bilal’s lack of a satisfying public explanation of these matters would be damning enough. (In a vague, buzzword-packed statement, she told the Inquirer: “As a new administration in office, we are carefully reviewing all past practices for efficiency as well as propriety so we can operate the office with transparency and integrity on behalf of all of the citizens of our city.”) But Philly politics-as-usual never ceases to amaze. After the Inquirer‘s editorial board condemned Bilal’s actions and called for the abolishment of the Sheriff’s Office for good … the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP called a press conference over the weekend. Not about rampant gun violence, systemic poverty, or lackluster public schools — but asking the Inquirer to offer Bilal an apology for its coverage.

In a press conference with just two other media outlets, Philly NAACP President Rodney Muhammad (or Rodney Carpenter), who has a history of political conflicts of interest, spoke on behalf of his organization when stating, “We feel that the Philadelphia Inquirer owes the Sheriff’s Office and the public an apology, coupled with the responsibility to go back and do some real objective investigative reporting on this issue.”

Want to know something that really isn’t objective? Muhammad is the appointed chaplain for the Sheriff’s Office, a position he started under Bilal and one that her spokesperson tells me is unpaid. Meanwhile, Bilal still serves alongside Muhammad on the Philly NAACP’s executive board as secretary. So it doesn’t surprise me that Muhammad wouldn’t take too kindly to the suggestion that the Sheriff’s Office be abolished.

How objective.

It’s hard to say that any of this surprises me. This isn’t Bilal’s first conflict of interest. The former Philly cop was found to be in violation of Philadelphia police department policy by holding a position as Colwyn Borough’s public-safety director while still on the department payroll.

“When you know better, do better.” Bilal should have already known better when deciding to run for office.

“When people show you who they are, believe them.” Bilal seems to lack the urgency these perceived conflicts of interest demand from a candidate who promised transparency and accountability.

Now that Controller Rebecca Rhynhart has launched an audit of Sheriff’s Office bank accounts from 2015 to 2019, it’s only a matter of time before all of this gets hashed out. Until then, this is just the latest example of what’s wrong with Philly politics. Officials who should know better seem unable to do better. And we keep giving them second chances.