I didn't want to pollute a different thread with this so I'll leave this here. Hint: you can't get this article off Google anymore.
PHA cop probe draws fed scrutiny
A resident of private housing was investigated after Blackwell beef
JOSEPH R. DAUGHEN daughej
IT WASN'T a knock on the door in the dead of night, but the message was chilling, nonetheless.
Please call, said the note. It was written on the back of a business car of the Philadelphia Housing Authority Police Department and slipped into the mail slot of the door of a West Philadelphia rowhouse.
The recipient of the card was a 27-year-old single mother of two. She recalled being puzzled and "a little scared" when she saw that it had come from the PHA police.
"I'm not in public housing," said the woman, who asked that her name not be published. "I have nothing to do with public housing. I work hard every day and I pay my rent. I wondered why the housing police came to my home when I wasn't there."
What she didn't know was that her house had been under surveillance by PHA police for at least three days last winter.
Nor did she know the housing cops had been sent to her modest, two-story masonry house because a powerful politician had complained about her.
The politician was City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Council's majority leader and potential Democratic candidate for mayor.
And the PHA cops responded to Blackwell's request even though they knew the woman was living in a privately owned house under a privately negotiated lease, receiving no government housing assistance.
Law-enforcement sources also said the woman had a clean record and had never been in trouble with the law.
Blackwell owns a house in the 5800 block of Webster Street, not far from the woman. Neighbors say Blackwell lives there, though city voting records have her registered in another home in her district a dozen blocks away.
Blackwell, 60, also is one of five PHA commissioners. She was appointed to that board by Mayor Street.
Blackwell says she doesn't remember complaining about the house last winter, and a PHA spokesman defends the housing police's actions, saying the agency always responds quickly when contacted by a public official.
Still, the dispatch of police to investigate a private house not affiliated with PHA has raised questions about the agency's use of police power. A source said available records indicate three PHA officers spent at least three days keeping an eye on the West Philadelphia house. Two of the three also put in overtime conducting the surveillance.
The source said PHA's inspector general has opened an inquiry into whether the power of the housing police was used properly in this case. The probe was started at the request of the federal government, which supplies most of PHA's $350 million budget, said the agency source.
PHA Inspector General Joseph Daly did not respond to a request for comment. PHA spokesman Kirk Dorn said he knew nothing of such an inquiry.
A quick response
The complaint filed by Blackwell with PHA in February alleged that the Webster Street house was a "nuisance" and the site of "illegal activity." It got an immediate response from the PHA cops.
"Jannie Blackwell's one of our commissioners and she's on City Council," said PHA spokesman Dorn. "Is she going to get more consideration when she calls than Mr. Smith? You bet. We try to respond quickly to any call from a Council person because they're representing constituents."
Blackwell said she didn't "recollect" complaining about the Webster Street house last winter.
But she acknowledged contacting PHA police about the same house in August 2004, because the previous occupant had become "a major problem" for the neighborhood.
Blackwell said she believed at the time that the house was part of PHA's Section 8 subsidized-housing program, although the property's ties to the program were severed in August 2003.
After PHA police convinced the landlord to evict that tenant in October, the problem ended, said Blackwell.
"I never complained after that," said Blackwell. "Over the years I've called PHA police when we got complaints about drug use or music being played loud late at night. Do they show me a courtesy? I don't see anything wrong with showing a commissioner a courtesy. I don't see what the problem is about a courtesy being extended. Maybe a complaint is coming from somebody who wants to run for mayor instead of me."
PHA spokesman Dorn said there were a couple of other reasons that Blackwell's concerns had been taken so seriously at the agency.
"This was a former PHA property, so our reputation was at stake," said Dorn. "The landlord of this property has other properties on our program which we have had problems with, so we felt justified in responding to this complaint. Upon investigation and talking with [the tenant], we found the complaint to be unfounded and that was the end of the case."
Though Blackwell said she had no recollection of making a second complaint about the house, the story of how responsive PHA Police Chief Richard Zappile and his department were to Blackwell can be found in the housing agency's own records, according to a source with intimate knowledge of the case.
Hours of police overtime
The source, who asked not to be identified, said those records show that on Feb. 14, a complaint attributed in writing to Blackwell was routed from Zappile's office to Commander Daniel Rosenstein. By 10 o'clock that same morning, said the source, Rosenstein had dispatched Officer Leroy Wimberly to Webster Street to place the house under surveillance.
By 10:30 a.m., Rosenstein informed Zappile that the house was not a PHA property and had not been part of the Section 8 program since August 2003.
According to the source, at least a half-dozen notations in the Webster Street file point out that the house was not part of a PHA program, either then or at the time of the first Blackwell complaint, in August 2004.
A typical entry, the source said, was this message from Rosenstein to Zappile on Feb. 14: "This property has not been on the HCVP since 2003."
HCVP stands for Housing Choice Voucher Program, the new name of the Section 8 program that helps subsidize low-income tenants who rent private housing.
Rosenstein, Wimberly and seven other officers were assigned to the HCVP, or Section 8, investigations unit. Assisted by three civilian employees, the unit is responsible for handling more than 900 complaints a year involving Section 8 houses.
Two sources with detailed knowledge of PHA practices said they had never before heard of the agency investigating a non-PHA-related house or tenant.
"They have fired cops for taking police action away from PHA sites," said a legal source who asked not to be identified.
PHA's legal department said a change in state law in 2003 granted housing cops the same authority that municipal police officers have. That, said Dorn, meant that the housing cops did not abuse their authority when they investigated a private tenant living in a private house.
"We don't advertise that we have that authority because we don't want our cops doing work the city cops do," said Dorn. "We have a small police force [about 100] and they have enough to do."
Said the agency source: "It was drummed into us that our responsibilities began and ended with PHA property. I can't believe they expect [housing cops] to be looking at complaints of loud music coming out of private houses."
That was exactly one of the complaints that led to the Webster Street house being placed under surveillance. The house is one of 46 on a block between Catharine and Christian streets, about four blocks east of Cobbs Creek.
After observing the house long enough to rack up six hours of overtime that first day, Wimberly reported to Rosenstein and his immediate boss, Lt. Edward Geiger, that he had seen "no activity."
The source said Rosenstein had passed Wimberly's report on to Zappile and asked in writing: "Shall we continue?"
Zappile's written reply, said the source, was: "Continue investigate tenants; go to property and interview them."
'I don't need more worry'
PHA spokesman Dorn turned down a Daily News request to interview Zappile and the other officers.
Wimberly clocked four more hours of overtime on Feb. 15 and Feb. 16 watching the house on Webster Street, in addition to the time he spent there during his regular shifts. Geiger also put in for four hours of overtime on those same days for working on the same case.
At about 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 16, after she returned home from work as an accounting clerk and found the note in her door, the woman called Wimberly. As a result of that call, Wimberly and Geiger visited her that night to discuss the complaint about noise and traffic in and out of the house.
The source said the woman reacted angrily to the complaint against her, saying it was "false." In the three months she lived there, she said, she was visited twice by her mother and sister, had no other visitors and was not dating anyone.
The source said Geiger had written a report of the meeting describing the woman as "neat, clean and pleasant."
Geiger's report, the source said, stated that the woman "demanded" to know "why PHA would be investigating a complaint about her since she is not a PHA resident and PHA does not own the house she rents."
The woman, the source said, told Geiger to contact her landlord, Sandy Dell, president of Poolside Ventures, Inc., owner of the property.
Geiger did so, said the source, and reported back to Rosenstein in writing that Dell had "demanded to know why PHA was at the home of her tenant and that she does not want her tenant being harassed."
"I'm not talking to no newspaper; I'm not talking to you," the woman said, when contacted by the Daily News. "I've got two little kids and I don't want my name in the newspaper. I don't want my address in the newspaper. I'm all alone here and I don't need any more to worry about. I don't even have a man."
According to the source, Blackwell had complained about the house's previous tenant on Aug. 27, 2004. Although the house was not affiliated with PHA, reports on file with the city's 18th Police District indicated the tenant was a problem for the neighborhood.
Those reports contained enough evidence of disorderly and illegal conduct that PHA police felt justified in seeking the tenant's eviction, the agency source said.
"This was not a PHA property, but the owner was collecting rent from PHA for nine other properties that were in the Section 8 program," the source said. "We thought this would make the owner sensitive to our demands."
The owner, said the source, was cooperative and helped relocate the tenant.
But the owner, Poolside Ventures, Inc., was not so cooperative when PHA police visited the new tenant, who had signed a private lease in December 2004, and was paying her own rent.
"This property is not involved in a PHA program," said a spokesperson for the owner. "They have no jurisdiction here. That's a real problem. It sounds like Jannie is using her clout to rid the neighborhood of people she doesn't want around."
The spokesperson said the police who visited the property "were very professional and very understanding."
"They didn't want to be there, but they had to be there," the spokesperson said. "I'm sure there was pressure on them." *