Sheriff's Office may owe millions in unclaimed auction proceeds

John Green: Retired suddenly
John Green: Retired suddenly
Posted: January 11, 2011

The Philadelphia Sheriff's Office has gone four years without sending any money to the state Treasury for unclaimed proceeds from sheriff sales - payments that used to average more than $1 million a year.

After the sudden retirement of Sheriff John Green and last week's firing of his top financial and legal personnel, the new leadership in the office is uncertain whether it even has records on how much it owes to whom.

"We might have the records, we might not have the records, or the records we have may be inaccurate," said Joseph Vignola, named last week as chief deputy to acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley. "This is one of the things on our to-do list. We're trying to cooperate with a lot of people."

The Sheriff's Office auctions thousands of homes and other real-estate parcels every year, with the bulk of the proceeds going to pay tax bills and creditors, such as banks, mortgage companies and utilities.

When the properties sell for more than the amounts owed, the extra money is supposed to go to the former owners. When the owners can't be located, the money is supposed to be forwarded to the state treasurer, who runs periodic advertising to alert citizens to their unclaimed property.

But the Treasurer's Office said yesterday that the last payments it received from the Philadelphia sheriff came sometime in 2006, when it forwarded surplus money from 2005 sales.

Before the payments stopped, they averaged more than $1 million a year - $5.6 million for the four years from 2002 through 2005.

What's happened to the surplus funds over the past five years is unclear - especially with the dismissals last week of the sheriff's top real-estate, financial and legal personnel, including finance director Tyrone Bynum, chief counsel Edward Chew and real-estate supervisor Crystal Stewart.

Under state law, the Sheriff's Office was supposed to file reports by April 15 each year, along with a check for the previous year's unclaimed money.

The Sheriff's Office stopped filing the reports, or sending any money, after making its last payment in 2006. State officials apparently failed to blow the whistle on the city's failure to file.

"The law requires that a report be generated when an entity has unclaimed property," said Jack Stollsteimer, who became director of the Treasury's Bureau of Unclaimed Property just last month. "The onus is on them to report it. . . . We're working with them right now to help them comply with their obligations."

Deeley became acting sheriff last week as an appointee of outgoing Gov. Rendell. She hopes to hold the job until a new sheriff is elected in November, but her confirmation requires approval from the state Senate, whose Republican leadership wants to hear from the incoming governor, Tom Corbett.

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