Retribution? Jewell Williams might pull sheriff sale ads from newspapers after primary defeat

Weeks after Sheriff Jewell Williams’ defeat in the May primary, his office is “reevaluating” the nearly $8 million it spends advertising auctions in local newspapers, with an eye toward discontinuing ads in some publications.

“The whole of the sheriff sale advertising program is being reevaluated,” said Dan Gross, a Williams spokesperson.

Williams has refused to talk to the press for months, shunning outlets over what he describes as unfair coverage of his office and the numerous sexual harassment allegations lodged against him. But Gross said timing of the review was purely coincidental.

State regulations require the office to post notice of foreclosure auctions, or sheriff sales, in at least one major general interest newspaper and one legal publication. Thirty years ago, Williams’ predecessor extended the lucrative ads to a string of smaller papers, many with ties to the city’s Democratic political establishment.

Rochelle Bilal, who unseated Williams last month and runs unopposed on the Democratic ticket in the November general election, declined to comment on her plans for the ad budget.

Williams’ office is now auditing the editorial content of all papers who make money off its ad placements. In a May 28 email obtained by WHYY/Billy Penn, the office requested that 14 publishers turn over clips of news articles mentioning the department.

The sheriff’s office initially indicated it was reviewing ads in The Inquirer and Daily News, which ran scathing coverage of the sexual harassment claims made against Williams. It later clarified the inquiry extends only to a dozen community newspapers, some of which rely heavily on the revenue from these sheriff’s sale ads.

Barbara Grant, another spokesperson for Williams who also oversees the placement of ads, said that the request was not an attempt to audit critical coverage. She declined questions about whether Williams had personally called to pull ads from specific papers.

“I’m not going to talk about that,” Grant said.

The money for the ads comes from fees on property sold at sheriff sales — and they’ve been the subject of scrutiny in the past.

In a 2018 investigative report on the politicization of the ads, The Inquirer reported that Williams spent $4.2 million on print advertisements in that paper, its sister publication the Daily News, the Philadelphia Tribune, and the Legal Intelligencer during the prior year. The office also spent an additional $3.6 million to advertise in about 20 other “community news” publications, like the Public Record, the Philadelphia Gay News, Scoop USA, Impacto News and others.

The ads have also benefited Grant’s politically-connected consultancy firm, Cardenas Grant Communications. From 2013 through 2017, her firm earned $4.5 million in fees for placing sheriff sale ads. Spokesperson Dan Gross is subcontracted by Grant’s firm to assist with communications.

A similar request for clips was sent out last year, Grant said, but many of the papers did not respond.

This time around, the office also asked for an audit of free bonus advertising community papers run — think “Sheriff Jewell Williams is hosting a gun lock giveaway next week,” or similar notices.

“Some of these papers will basically donate extra space for initiatives of the office,” Gross explained. “We’re really just trying to see what kind of coverage was received for what we sent out.”

In response to past critical coverage, Williams has approached newsrooms with editorial suggestions.

Following the 2018 Inquirer investigation into ad buys, the sheriff and his communications team met with publishers and editors privately to discuss the report.

Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, who attended the meeting, disputed that Williams was trying to strongarm outlets into flattering coverage.

“What he said to the newspapers was, ‘Look, if we’re putting ads in the papers we want you to report on what’s going on in your communities,’” Segal told WHYY/Billy Penn. “Then he looked at me and he said, ‘Like the Philly Gay News.’”

Segal, a political supporter of Williams who donated $1,000 to his recent reelection campaign, criticized The Inquirer for what he described as biased reporting on the ad program. He also defended the office’s expansion, saying it led to ads being placed in multicultural community newspapers.

Segal said he only runs stories about the sheriff’s office if the story intersects with the LGBT community. He denied any knowledge of the current ad placement review.

In an upset last month, Guardian Civic League president Rochelle Bilal unseated Williams to become the Democratic nominee for sheriff.

On the campaign trail, Bilal spoke critically of the nearly $8 million-a-year program, which she equated to “money advertising to sell people’s homes,” and proposed reinvesting the money to help “distressed” families, according to The Inquirer.

Asked why Williams had elected to revise the ad program so shortly before he leaves office, Gross countered that the remaining term of advertisements still held significant value.

“The current administration has at least six more months of ads to run, wherever they may run.” he said. “Whatever the incoming sheriff decides, that’s her prerogative.”