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October 06, 2016

'Ostracized' by Fishtown Neighbors group, former president sues

Courts Neighborhoods
Carroll - Fishtown Neighborhood Association Jordan Rushie Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Lawyer Jordan Rushie packs up his Fishtown office after six years in the neighborhood. He is suing the Fishtown Neighbors Association, alleging business dried up after he was "ostracized" by the group he once led. "I never thought it would come to this," he said.

Jordan Rushie knows he messed up. 

But what he considers an innocent mistake has snowballed into a dispute he claims has left him "ostracized" from the community and crushed his ability to work in the neighborhood he loves. 

"It's been complete and utter ex-communication," said Rushie, a lawyer. "I'm persona non-grata in this neighborhood."

Feeling so wronged by events, he is suing the Fishtown Neighbors Association, the community organization he once headed.

But it didn't have to end up in court. There were opportunities to avoid legal action– including an apology that fell on deaf ears and mediation before a judge. Bitterness won out. Rush has moved his law office out of Fishtown. His lawsuit, which alleges defamation and seeks damages in excess of $50,000, will go to trial.

With the allegations and acrimony persisting for more than a year, Rushie agreed to discuss the Fishtown feud, sitting down with PhillyVoice at his then-office in 2424 Studios on Sept. 20. (After the interview, a protective order was filed to keep Rushie and other parties from discussing the case.) 

The defendants in Rushie's lawsuit – the FNA and individual members Neil Brecher, Jamie Ware and Jill Betters – and their attorneys were contacted for this story, but declined to comment.

A LETTER OF SUPPORT

The seeds of the dispute were sown in September 2014, when Rushie become president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association. Rushie, who was serving as vice president after two years on the board, stepped into the role when the then-president stepped down. Rushie didn't live in Fishtown – his Boston Street home lay outside of FNA boundaries – but joined the group since his York Street law office was in the community. A lawyer specializing in zoning issues,  he performed pro bono legal work for members of the community, simply to be a good neighbor, he said. 

According to its website, the Fishtown Neighbors Association is a 501c3 and the registered civic organization serving the needs of Fishtown residents. Run by unpaid volunteers, the group "promotes community, civic involvement, and smart growth of our unique and diverse riverfront neighborhood. We work with neighbors to beautify our streets, put on community-building events, improve safety and wellbeing, facilitate local zoning matters, and bring resources to the neighborhood."

Under Rushie, the FNA board meetings were moved out of members' homes to his law office.

"[Rushie's] tried time and time again to settle this... He was told it was wrong, he apologized, he had his mea culpa" — Shaun Christopher, former president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association 

Not long after he became president, Rushie was approached by Alanna Ralph, owner of Salon Blush on York Street. Ralph wanted to install security cameras at her business and refurbish the facade to her building. She came to Rushie after hearing the FNA might be an avenue to community funds to help her do the work. 

"I asked Jordan if I would be eligible for something like that," she said in an interview last week. "He said we can try." 

Ralph applied for a $25,000 grant from the Penn Treaty Special Services District — an entity formed out of an agreement by SugarHouse Casino to contribute funding to benefit the neighborhood. Community entities located within a mile of the casino are invited to apply for grants and sponsorships. Every year, the PTSSD doles out funds, but businesses are not eligible. 

But the PTSSD had provided funding for local business associations in the past, including the Fishtown Business Association, Rushie said. So in February 2015, Ralph submitted an application seeking $25,000 from the PTSSD in order to pay for a "new storefront with secure windows and camera systems." 

In March 2015, Katrina Mansfield, secretary of the PTSSD, replied to Ralph's request, stating flatly that while the board "appreciated" the need for business corridor improvements, the PTSSD did not award grants to businesses. 

The PTSSD board strives to make sure funds are used to benefit the "most people possible," Mansfield said in a recent interview. "As a charitable foundation, we have to give money to something charitable. Giving money to a business is entering into the world of commerce." 

According to Mansfield, a business could only obtain a grant for charitable efforts and only if it could show support from a non-profit organization.

That's why, Ralph said, she was told by PTSSD that she would need approval from FNA, a non-profit organization, if she wanted to re-apply for a grant.

According to Rushie and Shaun Christopher, who served as FNA's vice president during Rushie's tenure as president, the association was already discussing creation of a business corridor along York Street. Girard Avenue had an established business corridor, as did Frankford Avenue. 

"York [Street] was the last part of that triangle," said Christopher. 

Rushie said he believed the work at Ralph's salon building could help jumpstart that effort. 

He wrote a letter of support for Ralph's grant application, ostensibly on behalf of the FNA board but without alerting its members. Rushie said he spoke to several members of the board about it, but Christopher said the board wasn't notified about the letter until after it had been emailed to PTSSD. 

FNA members were copied on the email sent by Rushie. 

"He wrote a letter of support without telling us," Christopher said.  

Subsequently, an FNA board meeting was planned while Ralph got estimates for the work.

That meeting never happened, but Rushie was already stirring concern for a different reason.

'ILLEGAL' OR NOT 

At the time he sent the email, Rushie was campaign manager for Christopher Sawyer, a Republican candidate for sheriff of Philadelphia.

When Brecher, a former FNA president and chairman for the annual RiverCity Festival, became of aware of that fact, he contacted Ware with concerns about Rushie's ability to serve as president while working a political campaign, according to court documents.

In an email listed in court documents, sent in late May 2015, Brecher warned that Rushie's political involvement could imperil the FNA's non-profit status. 

Upon learning of Rushie's letter of support for Ralph, Brecher emailed Ware and Christopher with further concerns about Rushie's actions, saying the grant application was "illegal" and that Rushie had acted in a manner "deliberately defrauding the FNA."

Christopher met with Rushie, who decided he would apologize for his actions and step down from his position as FNA president.

A resolution wasn't that simple.

FNA board members "freaked out" about the email on behalf of Ralph after Ware, an attorney at S.R. Wojdak and Associates in Philadelphia, told them that Rushie's actions may have been "illegal," Christopher claimed.

The board met subsequently, and Ralph's grant application was withdrawn by the FNA, court documents note. 

Christopher said it became clear later that Rushie did not break any laws. 

"He didn't do anything illegal, not even close to illegal. To this day, why hasn't Jordan been charged with anything?" asked Christopher. "The worst thing that could have happened was that we could have decided that he should be off the board... He wasn't kicked off the board, he resigned." 

With Rushie out as president, the FNA moved its board meetings to the Fishtown Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

Rushie thought the dispute was over. Instead, he said, "this is where it gets super nutty."

NoneThom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Alanna Ralph, owner of Salon Blush at 2407 E. York Street in Fishtown, sought out Jordan Rushie's help to install security cameras and refurbish the facade of her building. She approached the then-president of the Fishtown Neighborhood Association after hearing the FNA might be an avenue to funds to perform the work.


'I DON'T THINK YOU'RE ALLOWED TO BE HERE'

After he stepped down, Rushie took a trip out of the country. On his return, he felt a sense of "complete and utter excommunication" from the neighborhood. 

"I went to Toronto for work and when I come back, I'm a criminal," he said. "I was tried in absentia."

In July 2015, Rushie attended a meeting of the FNA's zoning committee, intending to present a project for a client. But the chairman of the zoning committee, who is not named in court documents, told the lawyer: "I don't think you're allowed to be here." 

This is when Rushie learned he was "kicked out" of the neighborhood group during a meeting held while he was on vacation. 

NoneSources/www.fishtown.org / Twitter

The defendants, from top: Neil Brecher, Jamie Ware, Jill Betters

It came as a surprise, Rushie said, because even though he was no longer president, he hoped to remain part of the zoning committee and the neighborhood's crosstown coalition — a group that works with non-profit community groups across the city. 

After his exclusion from the meeting, Rushie admitted he was upset and threatened to sue the board for defamation, alleging that emails accusing him of "illegal" acts had been shared in the Fishtown community, potentially damaging his reputation. 

"Those emails were sent all around the neighborhood and elsewhere," he said.

Instead, Rushie said he repeatedly tried to mend his relationship with members of the FNA, to no avail. 

By October 2015, the board finally agreed to hear him out in a special meeting.

But there were conditions. 

According to court documents, Rushie was allowed just 15 minutes to address the board. Members would not talk to him and would not reply to anything he said. 

"Be aware that there will be no back and forth between you and the board," noted a letter from the FNA's attorney, included in court documents. 

"This is a board I served on for three years," said Rushie. "Are we adults or children?" 

On Oct. 23, Rushie attended the meeting with Ralph, who was going to discuss the PTSSD grant request that had, by then, already been withdrawn. But the board refused to hear from Ralph — she wasn't even allowed in the building, Rushie claimed — though he was able to speak his piece. 

Two days later Rushie heard from the FNA's attorney, who reaffirmed he could not reclaim a position on the board. 

Rushie said he was disappointed, but there was something else.

Earlier that month, the FNA updated its bylaws with certain conditions that Rushie believes were intended specifically to keep him from rejoining the board. On Oct. 1, the FNA approved a residence requirement for participation on the FNA board. (Rushie's home is a block outside of the FNA's stated boundaries.) It also amended its bylaws to require anyone who resigns from a position on the board to wait a year before attempting to rejoin the board.

It was the first time the FNA's bylaws had been updated in a decade, according to court documents.

Rushie said he felt targeted by the amendments since they applied only to new board members and not current board members.

THE DISPUTE ESCALATES

Still unhappy with the situation, he filed an injunction in January 2016 in an effort to get back on the FNA board and participate in the zoning committee and the crosstown coalition. 

With the lawsuit filed, the dispute escalated.

In February, Ware's husband, Darren Smith, attended a zoning meeting at which Rushie had two zoning projects to present. 

According to court documents, Smith told a crowd of about 40 people that Rushie had applied for an "illegal grant application and then sued the FNA over it" and that Rushie might be attending the meeting only to collect evidence to use in the lawsuit against the FNA. 

"This was said in front of my client and many of my former clients," Rushie said. "This was devastating to my zoning practice." 

That day, both projects were denied. 

Ware, who is named in the lawsuit along with Brecher and the association, nor her attorney, would comment for this story.

The fallout from that meeting, Rushie said, torpedoed his neighborhood law practice. 

'I've had exactly two zoning clients since that went down," he said. "I have no Fishtown clients right now." 

The incident propelled Rushie to pursue the lawsuit. He claims that he could have sued the FNA for lost business due to the comments made at the meeting, but he decided against it. 

"It could be millions of dollars," he said. "But they'd never be able to pay for it and, second of all, I don't want to sue my neighbors." 

Instead, he continued to seek a return to the board – and a $10,000 donation from the FNA to the football program at Kensington High School. 

"I can make my own money. I don't even want the money," he said. "I really just want to give money to the football team." 

Seeking an amicable conclusion, Rushie and members of the FNA met in April with retired Judge Richard B. Klein for mediation of the matter. 

As a result of the meeting, Rushie said a settlement was drafted to reinstate him to the crosstown coalition and name him as the FNA's "York Street Business Liaison." Plus, the FNA would pay $10,000, which Rushie said was to be used for the football program. Both parties also agreed in the proposed settlement not to disparage each other, that details of the settlement would be confidential and there would be no admission of liability.

But after more than two months, the FNA took no action on the settlement, according to Rushie.

After hearing nothing by August, Rushie sent emails to the FNA's attorneys saying he's still be willing to settle — less any monies — if he could be reinstated to the board and allowed to participate in the zoning committee and the crosstown coalition. 

That offer was rejected.

In fact, Rushie said, he was told that returning to any leadership role in the FNA would be a "non-starter."  

Now the defamation lawsuit, which alleges that Brecher, Ware and Betters were "hellbent on ensuring Rushie was completely ex-communicated from the FNA and wanted to see his personal reputation tarnished,” is set for trial in Common Plea Court in August 2017. 

"He's tried time and time again to settle this," said Christopher, who stepped down from his FNA post last year. "He was told it was wrong, he apologized, he had his mea culpa... but you wouldn't have a story if cooler heads prevailed." 

On Wednesday, Rushie announced on Facebook he has moved his office out of Fishtown, to The Schmidt's Commons in Northern Liberties. 

"The FNA has f***ed up my law practice. So now we are shutting down the shop and moving," Rushie said. "I never thought it would come to this." 

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