Attorney goes after Whitman group for nonpayment: Bochetto owed 122G; debt could shutter Council

Posted: January 11, 2010

The Whitman Council, a South Philly community group, was visited last week by sheriff's deputies who took a good look around the office and tallied up all the stuff that can be seized.

It's payday for attorney George Bochetto, who represented three members of the group's board of directors in a 2005 lawsuit and has been seeking payment for his legal fees since.

Whitman Council president Mark Squilla said that Bochetto's efforts may shutter the group, which gets most of its funding from government grants.

Bochetto won a court judgment of $122,789 against the Whitman Council in July after the group didn't respond to a lawsuit. A judge last week allowed Bochetto to seize the group's bank accounts and other assets.

"We don't have the money to pay him and we'll never have $100,000," Squilla said. "What he has done in turn is try to close down the organization."

Bochetto was hired when Whitman Council's executive director sued the group and three board members, alleging age, sex and religious discrimination. The board had investigated rumors that she was dating a Catholic priest who also served on the board.

The executive director, who married him after he left the priesthood, settled the case against the group in 2008.

Bochetto had the case dismissed for the board members - Henry Lewandowski, Robert Blackburn and Michael Sullivan - before the group settled.

Bochetto said that he tried several times to get paid and offered to set up a payment plan.

"That's when the dead silence began," Bochetto said. "I'm not going to be ignored."

Whitman Council's 2008 tax return, filed in September, says that the group took in $69,935 in funding, mostly through government grants, and spent $96,675, leaving a $26,740 deficit. The return listed $15,436 in the bank and another $5,194 in pledges or anticipated grants.

Squilla said that the bank accounts hold grant money from the city's Office of Housing and Community Development and the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

"Really, it's all their money," Squilla added.

Paul Chrystie, an OHCD spokesman, said that his agency's contracts preclude the use of grant money to pay attorney fees, "and we are exploring ways of ensuring compliance with that provision."

Jamie Yates, a DCED spokeswoman, said that her agency "really has no legal remedy to stop the execution against the Whitman Council's bank account." Yates added that DCED could try to get the group to pay back any money used for purposes not included in the original grant.

Squilla predicts that Bochetto won't get much from the group.

"If he gets everything we have, he might get $5,000," Squilla said. "I'm sure it's not going to solve his $100,000 judgment."

Bochetto didn't miss a beat on that, vowing: "I'll take it."

The next step, Bochetto said, is to sue each member of the board as individuals.

"They will pay the money," Bochetto said. "It's a question of whether they want to do it reasonably, like business people, or whether I have to treat them like deadbeats."

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