FBI probing the way the city sells land to developers

FEIBUSHJOHNSON
Developer Ori Feibush (right) is suing City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, whose district includes Point Breeze, alleging that Johnson blocked the sale of vacant lots to Feibush after Feibush launched an unsuccessful bid for Johnson's seat in 2013.

The FBI is investigating Philadelphia's process for selling public land to developers amid a pair of lawsuits contending that a city councilman steered vacant lots to campaign contributors, according to people familiar with the probe.

The investigation was initially disclosed last October, when an attorney for Point Breeze developer Ori Feibush deposed Tania Nikolic, deputy executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

Feibush is suing City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, whose district includes Point Breeze, alleging that Johnson blocked the sale of vacant lots to Feibush after Feibush launched an unsuccessful bid for Johnson's seat in 2013.

In the deposition, which was attached to a court filing in December, Feibush lawyer Wally Zimolong asked Nikolic if she had spoken to any law enforcement officials about the city's land-sale policy.

Nikolic responded that FBI agents had visited the Redevelopment Authority in August and were asking about the "process for conveying properties," according to a transcript of the deposition.

She said Brian Abernathy, then the authority's executive director, and Ryan Harmon, the authority's general counsel, were present for the approximately hour-long meeting.

More recently, FBI agents have been asking questions about the sale of vacant lots to Johnson campaign contributors, according to a person who has been contacted by the FBI.

"As of this time, we are not aware that Councilman Johnson is the target or subject of any federal investigation," said Assistant City Solicitor John Coyle, who spoke on behalf of Johnson. "We have no information that supports that."

FBI spokeswoman Carrie Adamowski said she could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. Feibush and Zimolong declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the Redevelopment Authority, Jamila Davis.

The Feibush-Johnson civil trial is scheduled to begin Monday in federal court. The lawsuit, filed in June 2014, claims that Johnson retaliated against Feibush by using "councilmanic prerogative" - a council member's de facto veto over development in his or her district - to block Feibush from acquiring public land in Point Breeze.

The suit also claims that Johnson "coached the winning developer" on how to secure the bid, and asked the Redevelopment Authority to "provide special consideration" for that developer.

Johnson has denied the allegations.

"I've been more than supportive of projects regarding Ori Feibush," Johnson told the Inquirer in June 2014. "These accusations are totally false."

Last month, U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone dismissed a related lawsuit filed against Johnson by developer Michael Pollack, a Feibush partner who alleged similar behavior by Johnson. She found that Johnson was entitled to "qualified immunity," which shields elected officials from civil damages in certain situations.

But Beetlestone wrote in her ruling that a Johnson staffer had pressured officials at the authority to "approve the direct sale of a property over multiple expressions of interest." She also noted that several properties were sold to Johnson's friends and campaign contributors, some apparently for less than market value.

Pollack, also represented by Zimolong, is appealing the dismissal of his case.

benderw@phillynews.com

215-854-5255 @wbender99