Ousted from BRT, Fumo protege wants reappointment

Joseph Russo in 2008.

Joseph A. Russo was fired from the Board of Revision of Taxes in 2009 for allegedly manipulating a property assessment at the behest of his political patron, then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.

Now, the political consultant wants his job back.

Russo, with the backing of a number of judges he helped elect, has applied to fill a vacancy at the BRT, the agency in charge of property assessment appeals. He is one of seven applicants going through the interview process. Common Pleas Court judges ultimately will vote to fill the position.

Those judges, as the Board of Judges of Common Pleas Court, fired Russo seven years ago following an Inspector General Office's investigation that concluded that he "abused the public trust" as a tax assessor when he intervened in 2000 in the assessment of a former Catholic school and convent in Queen Village.

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 the owner, Fumo sent emails demanding that Russo increase the owner's property assessment. Russo, who at the time also was president Citizens' Alliance, spoke to another BRT assessor and gave her documents supporting a higher assessment. That assessor later raised the property's value from $200,000 to $520,300. After an appeal, the value fell to $400,000.

In an interview Monday, Russo said that the inspector general's report was full of "half-truths," and that he was doing his job as a tax assessor. He also disputed the allegation that while working for the BRT, he was also being paid as a consultant to help in some judicial races.

"The checks were made to my two sons. . . . I have copies of them," Russo said. "You aren't allowed to do civil service and campaign work."

That's been the position Russo has taken as he has lobbied dozens of judges who will vote Feb. 18 to fill the vacancy left by Board Chairman Russell Nigro, who resigned Dec. 31. But some judges aren't buying it.

"Checks may have been payable to his sons, but he was the one doing the work," said one judge, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's always been a consultant."

That judge added that some of the new Common Pleas Court judges who won their seats in part because of Russo's political consulting have been pressing Russo's case.

"He's approaching it like a political campaign," the judge said. "Judges are walking in and asking for support."

Nothing wrong with that, said Judge Paul P. Panepinto, cochairman of the judicial subcommittee that oversees BRT appointments.

"Candidates can talk to whoever they need to talk to," Panepinto said Monday. "I think it's appropriate."

Panepinto declined to name all seven candidates until the interviews are done Thursday. But two sources said that retired Common Pleas Court Judges Eugene Maier and Gregory Smith are among the applicants, as is real estate broker Barbara Capozzi. Maier likely will be the Democratic Party-backed candidate, the two sources said.

The seven BRT members are appointed to six-year terms. For decades, the board was the primary agency assessing the value of city real estate, and positions were among the most coveted - $70,000 a year for jobs that were considered part-time.

With the endorsement of Mayor Michael Nutter's administration and City Council, voters approved a referendum in 2009 to abolish the BRT. But the state Supreme Court later ruled that the agency should survive as an assessment appeals panel.

The BRT has had an overwhelming number of appeal cases in the last two years, mostly stemming from the citywide property reassessment project known as the Actual Value Initiative. Board members last month still were going through the last of the more than 24,000 appeals from 2014.

Panepinto said that given the volume of appeals, he would like whomever the judges chose for the BRT vacancy to be dedicated to the job and able to attend all the hearings, even if they are held five days a week.

"Taxpayers deserve the right person," he said. "Someone who will do the right job."

For the last few years, Russo, 66, has mostly done political consulting work. He also receives a $4,362 monthly pension from the city.

Russo points to his 26-year experience as a city tax assessor as a reason why he would be a good fit on the board.

"I got a raw deal. Plus, they could use some experience over there," Russo said Monday. "If I thought I had done anything wrong, I wouldn't run again."