Activist blackmailed after he criticized Aspira on Facebook

Gilberto Gonzalez, at his East Kensington home, received a threatening letter in the wake of his calls to Aspira to come clean about a $350,000 payout to a former employee.

When Gilberto Gonzalez read the letter threatening to expose to the world the "skeletons" in his closet, he flipped out.

"I had to pour a glass of wine before I could reread it," says Gonzalez of the anonymous note mailed last week to his East Kensington home. "It was disturbing. I felt scared for my family."

The anonymous blackmailer, who signed the letter "Ms. Karma," had been digging. Karma knew that Gonzalez was sometimes late paying his gas and tax bills, and that a house he owned was almost seized in a forfeiture action after a 2008 narcotics bust.

"Yes, yes, you paid to expunge the case but guess what; I have it in my hands. Someone has to give you a lesson," Karma wrote.

If Gonzalez didn't stop "attacking a person's reputation," Karma would send Gonzalez's records to his "neighbors, all the organizations that you have a relationship with [and] your present and previous employers" who would "learn who you really are."

Holy crap, that's chilling. No wonder Gonzalez needed to pop a cork. But he didn't need to guess what prompted the letter.

He believes it is about his criticism of Aspira.

As in Aspira of Pennsylvania, the drama-plagued social-services agency that runs four charter schools and a cyber charter.

Gonzalez has been badgering the organization to come clean about the $350,000 it paid a former Aspira employee who claims she was demoted after reporting the sexually harassing behavior of her boss, Aspira president and CEO Alfredo Calderon.

Gonzalez wants to know if there have been other sexual-harassment claims and payouts. And he wants Aspira to open its records to the public. The School Reform Commission has delayed renewing two of Aspira's charters because of the agency's unorthodox management practices.

His private calls, letters, and emails to Aspira have not helped Gonzalez get the info he wants, and he has been saying as much on his Facebook page (viewed by 2,411 friends).

For him, Aspira's mess is personal. When he was a teen, the agency saved his life.

"I was heading in a bad direction. I was in gangs. I was always fighting and I almost died of a drug overdose," says Gonzalez, 52, a divorced father of three.

"My parents couldn't control me. They contacted [Aspira co-founder] Lydia Colon and she drew me a picture of what my future would be. She said, 'If you don't pull it together, you'll die.' She got through to me. She made sure I went to classes, finished high school, and went to college."

He graduated from the University of the Arts with a degree in graphic design and now works in the marketing department of Community College of Philadelphia as a senior design director. He spends his spare time supporting grass-roots projects that lift up the Latino community - the one Aspira was founded to serve.

Gonzalez feels sick that Aspira has been sullied by the sexual-harassment scandal. And he's angry that money that could have helped kids was instead used to settle that claim.

But he never felt scared until Karma came calling. So he did the best thing you can do to defang a blackmailer. He shared the letter with his employer and police, then he posted it - boom! - on Facebook for the world to see.

"I won't be intimidated," he says.

In a statement to the Daily News, Aspira said it "has no comment about the letter in question except to agree that it is offensive, as is the suggestion that Alfredo Calderon or anyone at Aspira acting on his behalf had anything to do with it. "Mr. Gonzalez is free to express his views about Aspira, even though they are inaccurate."

Gonzalez is no stranger to controversy.

In 2013, he and others attended a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul to protest the closing of La Milagrosa, the tiny, historic Spanish church in Spring Garden. Gonzalez wore a blindfold to symbolize what he said was the church's turning a blind eye to the plight of immigrants. A snippy Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who celebrated the Mass, actually refused to serve Gonzalez Holy Communion.

The parish stayed shut, but Gonzalez scored a moral victory when the story and photo of Chaput's snub went viral. (Is it any mystery why Chaput has been passed over for cardinal?)

As for Karma's letter, Gonzalez says, "My life's an open book."

Sure, he's been late on some bills. But hasn't everyone struggled between paychecks - especially a divorced dad with kids?

"I send extra money when I can," he says of the $1,246.42 he owes in property tax. But his PGW bill is up to date. As for the drug-forfeiture incident, in 2008 he rented a house he owned to a cousin and her kids. When there was a drug bust there, Gonzalez was told to evict the family or lose the house in a federal seizure.

He booted them.

"It broke my heart," he says. "But you can't have people selling. It kills the neighborhood."

Once the dealers were out, the forfeiture action was dismissed. And that's it for his skeletons, says Gonzalez, who has never been arrested and who has a sterling, 20-year employment record at Community College.

So, fine. Gonzalez has stared down his blackmailer, whom police, he says, are not investigating since Karma didn't threaten violence or demand money.

That doesn't lessen the fear and intimidation Karma inflicted.

It takes courage to take a stand for what you believe is right. But good people can be cowed into defeated silence if they fear their words will threaten their jobs or standing in the community.

Thank God, many open their yaps anyway.

This week, it's Gonzalez. Last month, it was Sue Cornell of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, who went public in this column about the sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of former PPA executive director Vince Fenerty. Cornell spoke up even though the PPA board forbade employees to talk to the press.

That took bravery, but at least she knew whose ire her bravery might incite.

Hmmm.

I can't control what tech-savvy readers of this column might be thinking right now. Perhaps - just spit-balling here - a few will want to crowd-sleuth an online search history of Gonzalez's drug-forfeiture record. And maybe that would yield digital fingerprints that identify Karma. And then Gonzalez could look Karma in the eye and ask for an apology.

It will make for an awfully awkward moment. But you know what they say about karma.

It's a bitch.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

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