A federal grand jury is investigating the real estate operations of the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office following recent upheaval over management and accounting practices under former Sheriff John Green.

With the Sheriff's Office's notoriously faulty books unable to document nearly $53 million in assets for an audit last year by City Controller Alan Butkovitz, the U.S. Attorney's Office issued subpoenas last week for records on the sale of foreclosed properties.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Joseph Vignola confirmed Tuesday that the office had received a subpoena last Wednesday for records involving the real estate division and Reach Communications Inc., the office's main contractor for sheriff's sales under Green.

Vignola, hired by Acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley in January to help resolve concerns raised by the controller, would not provide a copy of the subpoena and referred questions to the city's Law Department. A city spokesman would not comment.

Butkovitz also received a subpoena last Wednesday for information that his computer consultants had obtained from the sheriff's database and Reach Communications. Butkovitz confirmed the subpoena but would not provide a copy.

Richard Barrett, who issued the subpoenas as chief of the U.S. Attorney's Office's Public Corruption and Civil Rights Division, declined to comment.

Green retired Dec. 31 after 22 years in the elective office of sheriff, heading an independent agency with a $13 million budget and 230 employees. It is responsible for transporting prisoners, securing courtrooms, serving warrants, and conducting the sale of foreclosed and tax-delinquent property.

Green stayed on two months past his planned retirement date after Butkovitz's audit, which raised the specter of fraud because the Sheriff's Office lacked even the most basic financial controls.

A week after taking over as acting sheriff, Deeley removed four top staffers from the real estate unit, suspending three with the intent to fire and transferring a fourth who is a Civil Service employee. She also canceled contracts with Reach Communications and RCS Searchers Inc., two companies owned by a longtime Green friend and political ally, James Davis.

Davis' sister, Crystal Stewart, and her husband, Darrell Stewart, were two of the employees removed by Deeley.

Reach hosted sheriff's data on its own server and was prepared to launch a new software program, with approval by both the Sheriff's Office and the city's Division of Technology, on Jan. 10. Deeley severed relations with the firm on Jan. 7.

Since the day his firm was let go, Davis has stood by his work and said his computer applications helped patch together a system that the city's Division of Technology had failed to fix since 2003.

He also questioned how Deeley expected to conduct a sheriff's sale without his help.

Davis' attorney, Catherine Recker, would not comment when asked if Davis or Reach had been subpoenaed, saying only: "We will be cooperating fully with any inquiry."

Recker said, at her invitation, she and Reach officials met last week at Reach's offices with representatives of the city law department, the Sheriff's Office and City Controller to explain the system Reach had set up for the Sheriff before the company was abruptly terminated.

Davis has previously said he developed the application in coordination with the city's division of technology - something city officials have denied - to allow the Sheriff's antiquated system to perform basic functions.

"We met seeking ways to help resolve the issues confronting the Sheriff's Office," Recker said.

Pamela Dembe, president judge of the First Judicial District - the name for the Philadelphia courts system - has ordered a moratorium on sales since late December. Deeley and Vignola are scrambling to proceed with a sheriff's sale on March 16.

As the Sheriff's Office struggles to prop up its computer system to resume auctioning properties, Dembe, Deeley, and Mayor Nutter are in talks to determine whether the office will retain control of that function in the future.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.