Convicted PHA manager blames agency's corrupt culture for her crimes

Posted: August 09, 2012

Kerri Bizzell, a former Philadelphia Housing Authority manager, and her defense attorney on Wednesday blamed the PHA's culture of corruption for Bizzell's past criminal behavior in which she extorted $25,000 from two contractors.

"Ms. Bizzell learned her behavior from those people who were in more senior positions than she," her federal defender, Elizabeth Toplin, told U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg at Bizzell's sentencing hearing.

Bizzell, 43, said she was transferred from the construction department to her position managing contracts after she had an affair with "an executive" at the PHA. The affair began the downward spiral of her marriage and the executive became insulted, she said.

In her new post, "I started to get involved in un-Christian-like behavior," Bizzell said. "I solicited certain individuals to do contracts. I changed documents. All of those instructions came from superiors."

In sentencing Bizzell, Goldberg didn't buy her shifting of blame. He sentenced her to four years and two months in a federal lockup. She was also ordered to repay PHA $25,000 in restitution and to be supervised for three years after her release. She will start her prison term in 60 days.

The judge noted that Bizzell had cost a public agency more in taxpayer money by her actions and had also failed to disclose to the PHA when hired that she had been convicted for theft and other crimes involving dishonesty.

She pleaded guilty in May 2011 to two counts of extortion and one count of obstruction of justice and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. She was charged with obstruction for trying to hush one of the contractors from talking with the grand jury investigating the case. Prosecutors said the two contractors paid Bizzell the kickbacks between December 2007 and May 2008.

Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA's interim executive director, who was at the hearing with other senior PHA staffers, said afterward that the $25,000 in kickbacks paid by the contractors was then charged by the contractors to PHA, unbeknown to the housing agency.

Jeremiah said there was "no doubt a culture of corruption at PHA. ... But at the same time, all of our employees had choice. [Biz-zell] chose greed over service to others." He said he had asked the judge "to set an example in this case" and was "pleased with the sentence."

He said he couldn't comment on what cooperation Bizzell has provided or whether any supervisors were being investigated. But he said that the PHA and the federal government were continuing to investigate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Pamela Foa also would not comment on whether Bizzell has cooperated or whether anyone else at PHA was being investigated in this matter.

Contact Julie Shaw at 215-854-2592 or shawj@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @julieshawphilly.

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