City judges fire BRT board member Russo
The city's judges fired Joseph A. Russo from the Board of Revision of Taxes yesterday, after a scathing report from the city inspector general said he had manipulated property assessments, abused his power, and committed perjury.
The sudden firing of Russo, a longtime ally of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, appeared to be unprecedented in the 155-year history of the BRT, the agency that sets tax values for all properties in Philadelphia.
"He did not uphold the standards expected of appointees," President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe said. She said the vote was unanimous and the firing effective immediately.
Russo's attorney, Nino V. Tinari, said it was "extremely disappointing" that the judges fired Russo without giving him a chance to tell his version of events.
"All I know is the full story has not come out," Tinari said.
The findings, many of which were detailed as part of a three-part series in The Inquirer early this month, focus mainly on Russo's role in the 2000 reassessment of an old convent and Catholic school on Moyamensing Avenue in South Philadelphia.
Russo has extensive ties to Fumo. He was president of Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, the charity Fumo controlled, and the IG report identified payments and reimbursements to Russo from Fumo's campaign committee. The report, by Inspector General Amy Kurland, also claims that Fumo later secured Russo his seat on the BRT board.
"Russo's actions clearly destroyed the public's trust and confidence in the operations of the BRT and in his ability to be a fair, efficient, and impartial city employee," reads the confidential report, which The Inquirer obtained.
Kurland said she was "very pleased" that the judges accepted her recommendation.
She said her investigation into the BRT continues.
"Russo's improper conduct as a BRT board member perpetuates the public's belief that those without political influence are powerless when confronted by the force of the government and those with political influence can do as they want," the report reads.
A BRT spokesman said the judges did the right thing.
"You can't manipulate values," spokesman Kevin Feeley said. "The BRT believes it is critically important to protect the integrity of the valuation process."
Earlier yesterday, Russo's fellow board members held a a private discussion and asked him to stay away from their meetings until the issues were resolved.
"They did what they had to do," said BRT member Russell Nigro, a former state Supreme Court justice.
The Catholic school incident happened when Fumo was trying to use Citizens' Alliance to buy the property and convert it into a charter school.
When owner Alan Hunter refused to sell, an enraged Fumo ordered Russo, through e-mails to his son-in-law and then-staffer Christian Marrone, to increase Hunter's assessment.
Although Hunter wanted more than $1 million for the property, the BRT's market value for tax purposes was just $200,000.
"Let it go to market value of $1 million . . . and we'll see how long he wants to sit on the building," Fumo wrote.
Russo, who was a BRT property evaluator at the time, obliged Fumo and asked another evaluator, Elizabeth Aros, to raise Hunter's assessment, the report said.
That was against BRT rules, the inspector general said. Aros was so upset that she went to her boss, Eugene Davey, who told her to investigate what the value should be.
Later, Russo went to Aros again and gave her documents to support a higher assessment, including a letter from Hunter to his real estate agent and an appraisal from Harvey Levin that set the property value at $600,000. Levin is a BRT board member who at the time was working for Citizens' Alliance.
Aros saved the papers at her house and turned them over to the inspector general.
It turned out those were the only documents available. The BRT said it lost its own file, the report says.
In an interview yesterday, Davey said he didn't remember Aros' talking to him.
"People talked to me all day long," said Davey, now retired.
"If she would have talked to me, I would have told her to put it in writing" because Russo's inquiry broke the BRT rules.
But he also said the value probably should have gone up; Hunter was converting the property from a church school to condominiums.
In an interview, Levin said he never tried to interfere with Hunter's assessment.
"I didn't give that letter to Aros," he said. "I didn't know what Russo was going to do with it."
Prosecutors asked Russo about the e-mails and Hunter's property during Fumo's corruption trial. He told them he didn't remember anything about it. "I would think I would remember that, yeah," he said.
The inspector general's report said that was "perjury," though it made no recommendation to prosecute him.
"That's a major, major allegation," Tinari said. "It really disturbs me that they used that word." He said there was no indication that any state or federal authorities were investigating Russo for alleged perjury.
At worst, Tinari said, the allegations against Russo merited "some sort of disciplinary action," but not firing. He said he wanted to read the report before deciding what to do next.
Russo declined to give an interview to the inspector general two weeks ago, even after he was assured he could not be prosecuted for anything he said, the report says.
The report also slams Russo for failing to recuse himself from BRT votes on the assessment of Fumo's Spring Garden mansion, which the report called a "particularly egregious" example of a conflict of interest.
The BRT voted, 4-3, not to raise Fumo's $250,000 market value, even after he put the house up for sale at $7 million to raise money for legal bills in his corruption case.
Fumo was convicted in March of looting the nonprofit and defrauding taxpayers.
Levin joined Russo in the initial vote and later voted to raise Fumo's tax assessment, along with those of 50 other high-end properties. Levin's vote on the appeal was not criticized by the inspector general and he said his vote presented no conflict.
Russo also violated city rules when he took campaign money from Fumo and two judges, Susan Schulman and Frank Palumbo, the report concluded.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Nutter called on all seven BRT board members to resign after The Inquirer published its reports on the agency's poor performance, patronage, and improper assessments. Six members - Russo was missing - lined up in front of television cameras to say they were staying.
But a measure before City Council would dismantle the BRT and turn its job of assessing properties over to a city agency under the mayor's control.
Two minutes before the start of the judges' meeting yesterday, Dembe said, they received a letter from Nutter asking that Russo be fired based on the charges in the inspector general's report.
"So we did it," she said.
She said the judges would send a termination letter to Russo today and a letter to the city saying his paychecks should stop.
Hunter, who now lives in part of the converted convent, said he was gratified that the city took such quick action to get rid of Russo.
"I think people will feel better that there won't be guys like him around," he said. A community activist, Hunter said he thought Russo got in over his head in a corrupt system.
"I don't think these guys think they are doing anything wrong. It's just sort of like a way of operating."
Tax Travesty: Three Weeks in the Hot Seat
April 29: The city's tax agency, the Board of Revision of Taxes, releases tentative new assessments that could change the tax bills for more than 577,000 properties in Philadelphia.
May 3: The Inquirer launches three-part series "Tax Travesty: Chaos and cronyism inside the BRT." Series catalogs incompetence, political patronage, and rigging of taxes.
May 4: Leaders of the BRT are subject to a two-hour public flogging by City Council as a result of The Inquirer series.
May 6: Mayor Nutter and Council President Anna C. Verna say the BRT will be reformed or dissolved.
May 7: Nutter calls on seven board members of the BRT to resign, citing the agency's incompetence and ethical lapses. They refuse. Councilman Bill Green introduces bills to abolish the BRT or to strip city judges of their power to appoint the board and give that responsibility to the mayor and Council.
May 12: The Office of the Inspector General reports that the BRT's top assessor did not pay any city business-privilege taxes on a home-based company, even though it received $917,000 in SEPTA contracts.
May 13: The head of the state board that runs Philadelphia schools says it is time to end the school-funded system of patronage jobs at the BRT.
May 21: BRT board member Joseph A. Russo is fired after the inspector general's report says he manipulated property assessments, abused his power, and committed perjury.
Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or email@example.com.