Fired from BRT, Fumo ally sues to get job back

A fired member of the Board of Revision of Taxes has gone to court to try to get his job back.

Joseph A. Russo was dismissed by the city's judges last month after the city inspector general issued a report concluding that he had abused his power and interfered with a property assessment to benefit his political patron, former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.

Russo is believed to be the only board member to be fired in the 155-year history of the BRT, the agency that sets property-tax values in Philadelphia.

The action, filed in Commonwealth Court by Russo's lawyer, Nino V. Tinari, argues that Russo should get his job back immediately and receive a hearing so he can defend himself.

"There was no reason to terminate Mr. Russo," the suit says. Russo should be allowed to serve out the remainder of his six-year term, which expires next year.

Pamela Pryor Dembe, president judge of Common' Pleas Court, did not respond to requests for comment. Inspector General Amy Kurland declined to comment, saying she had not seen the suit.

Kevin Feeley, a BRT spokesman, said the judges made the right call in firing Russo.

"Mr. Russo is going to get his day in court," he said. "The board cannot tolerate even the appearance of impropriety when it comes to the setting of property values in the city of Philadelphia."

The Inspector General's Office concluded that Russo "abused the public trust" when he intervened in the assessment of a former Catholic school and convent at Christian Street and Moyamensing Avenue in Queen Village.

In 2000, Fumo wanted to buy the property for a charter school through his nonprofit, Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. When he could not make a deal with owner Alan Hunter, Fumo sent e-mails demanding that Russo increase Hunter's property assessment.

At the time, Russo was a BRT assessor in South Philadelphia as well as president of Fumo's nonprofit.

Russo spoke to a fellow BRT assessor, Elizabeth Aros, and later gave her documents supporting a higher assessment. Aros, who reported the incident to her boss, later raised the property's value from $200,000 to $520,300. After an appeal, the value fell to $400,000.

The Inquirer reported the assessment changes in May as part of a series about problems at the BRT.

The e-mails surfaced during Fumo's corruption trial. During his testimony, Russo said he remembered nothing about the incident. That amounted to perjury, the inspector general said.

Russo also violated city rules when he failed to answer questions during the inspector general's investigation, the report concluded.

Tinari said he advised Russo not to cooperate because he believed the inspector general's investigators, with wide-ranging questions, were trying to find some evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Kurland, the inspector general, is a former federal prosecutor.

"They wanted to utilize this opportunity to either continue some other sort of investigation or to start an investigation, and I wasn't going to go in that direction," Tinari said. "What am I, born under a mushroom?"

Tinari said it was "totally unfair" for the office to accuse Russo of perjury. Russo has not been charged with any crime. "As a result, this guy is suffering tremendously," Tinari said.

Russo, who made $72,000 a year for his part-time position on the BRT, has not worked since the firing, the suit said.

 


Contact staff writer Joseph Tanfani at 215-854-2684 or jtanfani@phillynews.com.