FBI Questioned Us About Philly Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, Staffers Say

On election’s eve, critics of the incumbent sheriff reveal the FBI asked about Bilal’s spending and management.

philadelphia sheriff rochelle bilal

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal / Photograph via the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office

With just days to go before a Democratic primary in which first-term Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal faces two challengers, three longtime staff members of the office have together reached out to Philadelphia to disclose that the FBI questioned them in April about her spending and managerial actions, including her decision to stop using financial monitoring software to track the office’s expenditures.

A former whistleblowing staffer, Brett Mandel, said he was also questioned by the FBI in March 2020, shortly after he was fired as chief financial officer just five weeks into Bilal’s administration. Mandel later won a settlement in a suit he brought against the city and Bilal alleging wrongful termination.

News of the FBI questioning threatens to become yet another controversy for the Sheriff’s Office, the city department with a $25 million-plus annual budget that provides security to all Philadelphia courtrooms and manages all First Judicial Court-ordered foreclosures of property.

The three staffers say they are concerned about the reputation of the office and chose now, just before the election, to come forward to seize on the moment when the city’s interest in the office was at its highest. They spoke on the condition that they not be named because they fear retaliation for their involvement in what they described as an “active investigation.”

All three said they were aware of other current and former Sheriff’s Office staffers who were also recently interviewed by the FBI. The FBI, as is standard practice, neither confirmed nor denied the existence of an investigation.

The three spoke to Philadelphia after they were contacted directly by members of the bureau in April 2023 regarding issues pertaining to Bilal’s spending, hiring practices, and managerial actions. They spoke with agents both in person and on the phone and say the conversations lasted less than an hour. Each of the staffers reported being contacted between two and four additional times throughout the month. Each reported being asked similar questions — for instance, about payments for a party at Chickie’s & Pete’s and a proposal by Bilal to more than double her own salary. Questions were also posed to two of the staffers about Bilal’s hiring practices and handling of contract bids. All three staffers said they were fully cooperating with the FBI. Two of the staffers said they had also been contacted by the FBI prior to April about matters pertaining to Bilal’s administration.

The first staffer, who was employed at the Sheriff’s Office before Bilal was elected in 2019 and who has worked closely with sheriff’s sales and operations, reported being first contacted by the FBI about Bilal in 2021, after Bilal had “caught heat” for what the staffer described as “the ill-informed Bid4Assets contract.” In 2021, city officials admitted at a hearing that Bilal had entered into a six-year contract with online software company Bid4Assets — which tracks sheriff’s-sale house auctions — without issuing a public request for proposals.

This staffer said the agent wanted to know “about the other [companies] who weren’t allowed to make a competitive bid for the contract.” The staffer said that other companies had been informed of the potential contract without being given an opportunity to interview or submit a formal proposal. The top lawyer for the Sheriff’s Office, Undersheriff Curtis Douglas, resigned shortly after the revelation of that contract.

In April of this year, the same staffer reported being asked by the FBI for any insight into how Bilal funded the office’s $6,662 holiday party at Chickie’s & Pete’s in December 2022. “Federal investigators asked me about a particular custodial account that was used to pay Chickie’s & Pete’s in two separate checks at two different times, in December of last year and January of this year,” the staffer said.

A second current Sheriff’s Office staffer, who works closely with senior executive staff and managers, also says the FBI asked about a newly created Sheriff’s Office account that funded the Chickie’s & Pete’s holiday party. The staffer, who was hired before Bilal took office, says the FBI made contact in April about “questionable decisions made by the Sheriff.”

This second staffer says the FBI also wanted to know about Bilal raising the salaries of executive staffers while seeking to double her own salary. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that according to city finance records and an internal Sheriff’s Office memo obtained by the paper, Bilal used hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked to hire new deputies to instead give lucrative raises to higher-ups in the office. The paper also reported that the city’s finance department blocked Bilal’s proposal to more than double her $136,083 annual salary to $285,000, which would have made her the highest-paid elected official in the city.

A third staffer, who works with various senior department officials and financial operations, says the FBI initiated contact in April pertaining to Bilal’s attempt to boost her own salary, the account used to pay for the Chickie’s & Pete’s holiday party, the role of Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Teresa Lundy in the Bid4Assets contract, and any knowledge regarding Bilal’s hiring of Undersheriff Tariq El-Shabazz, who was recently reported to be moonlighting as a criminal defense attorney, in violation of ethics rules. Lundy, who is the principal of TML Communications Firm, is an independent contractor of the Sheriff’s Office, not a city employee.

The third staffer made clear his dissatisfaction with the operation of the office under Bilal. “Feds had a lot of questions for me about a lot of the scandals that have been impacting the office lately, and it seems as though they had spoken to others in the department as well,” the staffer said. “I’ve been here since former Sheriff Jewell Williams, and while there was mess then as well, I’ve never had the FBI asking me questions” before.

One claim made by all three staffers was that in mid-April, during the time frame of the FBI’s questioning, Bilal had suspended the use of Teleosoft, a county government software system that the Sheriff’s Office had been using since 2015 — following their interviews with the FBI earlier that month. According to the current staffers, Teleosoft was used to track all the expenses and transactions made within various accounts related to sheriff’s sales. A 2022 audit by the City Controller’s office called Teleosoft a “more sophisticated, integrated accounting program that tracks costs and keeps case ledgers current.” A senior staffer who currently works at the Sheriff’s Office confirmed to Philadelphia that Teleosoft was discontinued at the office in late April. The staffers claim that transactions are now being tracked manually on traditional spreadsheets, with receipts issued via Microsoft Word.

“None of these transactions now have controls,” one of the staffers said, adding that figures could theoretically be changed and transactions deleted “without anyone being able to catch it within the system. I shared this with the FBI when they asked me about changes with our financial bookkeeping.”

Multiple requests to speak with Bilal for this story were denied; she has previously denied allegations of misusing funds. Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lundy says she wasn’t personally contacted by the FBI and provided no comment regarding Bilal or the office itself in this matter. Asked whether anyone else at the office had been contacted by the FBI, or why Bilal allegedly abruptly discontinued the use of Teleosoft in April, Lundy also declined to comment.

Brett Mandel, the former chief financial officer for the Sheriff’s Office who’s spent his career advocating for governmental accountability, tells Philadelphia he was contacted by the FBI in early 2020, following his abrupt firing by Bilal earlier that year after working for her administration for just five weeks. Mandel says he was fired for raising concerns about what he had called “slush fund” spending.

“The FBI contacted me about my termination and issues at the Sheriff’s Office shortly after the March 2020 Inquirer story,” Mandel says of the article detailing his dismissal. Mandel later sued the city and Bilal for wrongful termination and won a six-figure settlement in June 2021 from the city, though the city didn’t admit liability. Mandel says he raised concerns about how the office spent money and awarded contracts — areas that have dogged the office for decades. “I discussed the concerns I had with the problematic ‘off-budget money’ the Sheriff’s Office was spending and other matters,” Mandel adds.

The FBI’s apparent interest in the Sheriff’s Office finances echoes questions raised in former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s 2022 audit of the department, which noted a lack of oversight of how the office spends millions.