Oct 23, 2023 - News

Lawsuits mount against Philadelphia's outgoing register of wills

Illustration of a pile of money under a cracked glass dome with a gavel hovering overhead.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Philadelphia register of wills Tracey Gordon is in her final weeks in office, and her successor will inherit any ongoing struggles related to lawsuits filed by five former employees who say they were fired for refusing to donate to her re-election campaign.

Why it matters: The pending lawsuits will likely continue even after Gordon's departure on Jan. 1, putting taxpayers at risk of incurring costly potential settlements for the city, according to a government expert interviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The fifth person — Patrick Parkinson, a city ward leader and longtime administrative deputy — filed a federal lawsuit against Gordon last week, saying she "continually and relentlessly badgered" him for campaign contributions and retaliated when he wouldn't donate.

  • Gordon's former press spokesperson Malik Boyd says in a separate lawsuit filed last month that he was fired for not lying to the media to protect his boss from scrutiny.

The other side: Gordon didn't respond to Axios' requests for comment.

How it works: Gordon, whose current annual salary is more than $155,000, was first elected in 2019 and served a four-year term before losing the May Democratic primary to estate attorney John Sabatina Sr.

  • Her office issues wills and marriage licenses, maintains marriage records, administers cases when someone dies without a will and stores historical records, including for the city's orphans court.

Catch up quick: Gordon has operated under a dark cloud over the last year as several former employees came forward accusing her of abusing her power and acting unethically.

  • She allowed her daughter, who runs a fitness business, to sell Eagles' apparel out of the register of wills office, per the Inquirer. Then came the lawsuits.
  • Former clerk Nicholas Barone was the first employee to sue after he was fired in January. He says in the suit he had a sterling job record and was promoted before being fired for not donating $150 to Gordon's campaign, the Inquirer reports.
  • Another fired former clerk, Mark Wilson, filed suit against Gordon in May, and included an affidavit from his supervisor Thomas Campion that said he was "well liked" and worked hard before being let go.
  • Campion also filed his own lawsuit saying Gordon put "immense pressure" on employees to contribute to her campaign, per the Inquirer.

Parkinson's attorneys cited those suits, saying they show Gordon has engaged in a "pattern" of harassment and retaliation. According to the lawsuit, Parkinson believed Gordon was "ruthless, corrupt, unethical, incompetent" and acted "in an illegal manner."

What they're saying: The city's row offices have "tended to be bastions of patronage," Lauren Cristella, president and CEO of the government ethics watchdog Committee of Seventy, tells Axios.

  • She says the employees' allegations should be investigated by the city's ethics board, which didn't respond to Axios' request for comment.
  • "No more Philly shrug," Cristella says. "You don't have to accept that things are like this. They're not like this in every city and Philadelphians need to demand better from their government. It starts with increasing the expectations of our elected officials and public servants."

Details: Parkinson says that Gordon and her supporters mentioned how she had other ward leaders fired after he didn't defend her during a meeting with Bob Brady, a former congressman who heads the Democratic City Committee.

  • After the meeting "turned to chaos," Parkinson says one of Gordon's supporters texted him: "It is simple now you are either loyal to Tracey or the congressman but not both," per the lawsuit.
  • Parkinson went out on stress leave and his "worst fears" were realized when he was fired three weeks later without explanation, according to the lawsuit.
  • Gordon later claimed that he "abandoned" his job, per the lawsuit.

The intrigue: Boyd, the former communications director, recounted similar experiences with Gordon threatening to fire him, including for refusing to run personal errands for her that weren't part of his duties as press director, per the lawsuit.

  • Boyd complained about Gordon to human resources but they went nowhere.
  • His lawsuit says he was fired in May and replaced with one of Gordon's "fervent" supporters because he wouldn't "protect my administration."
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