Update: Mr. Cobb has quit his post as Councilman Johnson’s chief legislative aide and is now confirmed to be working at the University of Pennsylvania.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson knew he was giving a City-owned house to a puppy breeder
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office wrote a bill authorizing a City-owned house to be sold to a puppy breeder for $1

Yesterday PDQ broke the story of a Philadelphia Police Department narcotics raid at 1916 Federal Street in Point Breeze.  Residents had complained of pit bull dogs being bred at the property and sold by the owner of the house, Mark Gresham. Another unusual hustle from the home was the raising and selling of live turtles, which are illegal in the city (who knew?).

I had mentioned that the house was sold to Gresham by the City of Philadelphia for a dollar.   How did that happen?

The TL;DR answer:  Kenyatta.

Mark Gresham, 46, arrested for possession with intent to deliver narcotics
Mark Gresham, 46, arrested for possession with intent to deliver narcotics on Tuesday

A bit more about Gresham, first.

In 2010 Gresham was arrested for aggravated assault and robbery.  The District Attorney’s office elected to abandon the prosecution in a nolle prosequi order signed by Common Pleas judge Linda Carpenter.

A deeper investigation into e-mails between several residents and the City reveal something interesting: various officials of the City were very much aware of complaints of narcotics and dog breeding occurring at 1916 Federal Street at the time that the City of Philadelphia owned the home.

It proceeded to sell the property to Mr. Gresham anyway for $1 despite repeated warnings.   These warnings were delivered to:

  • Brian Abernathy, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority
  • John Coates, of the City’s Vacant Property Review Committee
  • Ann Pasquariello, at the City Law Department
  • Steven Cobb, then legislative aide to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson
  • Councilman Kenyatta Johnson
  • Two ADAs at the District Attorney’s Office

How Did Gresham Get Title to the House?

Emails discovered by PDQ indicate that Gresham had communicated to the City years ago that he was willing to take care of the property, including bringing it up to code under the City’s now-defunct dollar house program.  Although the program had been discontinued for many years there was an unexplained urge by the City to proceed with this sale.

This e-mail from the City’s Law Department explains that it apparently (and without proof of the contract) entered into a legal covenant with Mr. Gresham and even visited the property and that it didn’t find evidence of puppy breeding or a narcotics business. Nevertheless, the assistant from the Law Department asserts that neither of those activities apparently would have stopped the City from giving away the property and that the responsibility for halting a sale ultimately rests with Councilman Johnson:

1916 Federal City Solicitor Email

The Redevelopment Authority

Gresham had been living inside the property for at least a decade with a tenancy that is as yet unclear.   In this email from the Redevelopment Authority’s executive director Brian Abernathy, he explains to a complainant after the sale had been authorized by the City that nothing could have stopped the house from being sold to Gresham [except of course, Councilman Johnson]:

PRA1

In this internal email between Abernathy and Susie Jarmon (another PRA employee), Abernathy indicates that the City’s Law Department instructed the Redevelopment Authority to not intervene and proceed with the sale to Gresham and that the reason for the transfer was “a[n] old gift”…

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Kenyatta Johnson

No City-owned property can be sold without a piece of authorizing legislation pushed by the district city councilperson.  This power is known in Philly as councilmanic prerogative.  Yes, it is that same power that Johnson got in trouble for just this year.

Up until recently Councilman Johnson’s chief legislative aide has been Steve Cobb [Cobb has since quit his post and now works at the University of Pennsylvania according to a search of the UPENN Faculty Directory].  Mr. Cobb was involved in all interactions between the Councilman’s office and City agencies; the City Solicitor’s office, the Vacant Property Review Committee (who approved the final draft of the legislation to sell the house to Mr. Gresham), and the Redevelopment Authority itself.

Complaints about 1916 Federal Street were sent directly to Councilman Johnson starting from 2012 onwards as well as the 17th Police District which covers the neighborhood of Point Breeze.  All of those complaints were met with dry platitudes, failed promises to follow-up, claims of unfoundedness or non-responses.

Ultimately none of this mattered.

Councilman Johnson drafted a bill to sell a City-owned rowhome to a drug dealer operating a puppy mill inside of 1916 Federal Street with full knowledge of whom he was selling the property to.  In an ironic but a completely expected twist: Councilman Johnson is the author of the City’s regulations banning puppy mills in Philadelphia.

Philadelinquency reached out to Brian Abernathy, Councilman Johnson and the mayor’s office for comment concerning the property and yesterday’s article.  None replied.

One More Thing…

The house currently doesn’t pay any property taxes at all because all of its value is 100% exempt.  Both the house and the land.  Isn’t that awesome?

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Where the fuck can I get a sweet deal like that???!

Here’s the legislation that was passed by City Council and signed by the mayor.

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