Karen Heller: Political bedfellows Greene and Street square off

Posted: January 31, 2013

John Street took a seat in the third row of a federal courtroom Tuesday. "It's a tragedy," he told me. "There are no winners here. The agency has taken a beating."

The former mayor is right. He was talking about the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the trial of Greene v. Street et al, which was about to start.

But the et al hardly matters.

This is a blistering battle between Carl Greene, the longtime PHA chief - some might argue, czar - and Street, once his ardent champion and self-appointed head of the authority's board. Greene, who now lives in Georgia, sat quietly and without emotion.

"Carl Greene was fired because he embarrassed John Street," Greene's lawyer, Clifford Haines, told the court. "This was the most public flogging of any person in public or private life since the president of the United States was impeached."

Greene ran the PHA for more than a dozen years with almost unchecked authority and extraordinary compensation, earning almost twice as much as the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, until it blew up three years ago in spectacular fashion.

Running the agency that is the city's biggest landlord, Greene was found not to have his own house in order, defaulting on his mortgage with an IRS lien. It was ultimately revealed that he was the subject of four sexual harassment suits by former female employees, which were settled for more than $1 million. Greene failed to show for work, went AWOL, and ultimately checked into a sanitarium that, in the small-world department, is run by the cousin of former Mayor and Gov. Ed Rendell, who first hired Greene and helped him secure treatment.

Rendell was also in the courtroom, as the trial's first witness. He was questioned by Haines, his Eagles game buddy and chief of homicide when Rendell was district attorney. Really, it was like they were getting the band back together.

Greene is widely credited with transforming the city's public housing, home to 82,000 tenants, by demolishing crime-plagued high-rises, and building garden apartments and handsome multiuse buildings.

He is also credited with being "a difficult manager who exploded in anger and frustration."

And those are his lawyer's words.

"He was brusque, abrupt," Rendell testified. "He kicked the living daylights out of people who didn't perform."

In the breach-of-contract suit, Greene contends that PHA's commissioners fired him without proper cause, failed to follow authority guidelines, and owe him $743,000 in lost pay and vacation time - six weeks, 11 paid holidays - plus damages.

Please remember at all times that Greene's job was providing housing for the city's poorest citizens and that the three-quarters of million dollars is your federal tax money.

"Mr. Street desperately wanted to run for mayor but didn't have a platform," Haines argued. Two years ago, after "his nemesis," Mayor Nutter, chastised Street for weak PHA oversight, Haines charged, "John Street needed a cover, and the cover was to excoriate Carl Greene and so elevate his misconduct that no one would pay attention to John Street's failures and lies."

Steven Engelmyer, Street's lawyer, labeled the politics "a sideshow." The case, he told the court, is about "reckless, intentional misconduct." He named the women who filed sexual harassment suits and the amounts paid, and contended that Greene hid the settlements from the board.

The trial is projected to last three weeks and may make Greene's 2010 ordeals look like a picnic. Women who settled cases and signed nondisclosure agreements will be called to testify.

"One million to settle these cases," Engelmyer said. "You are going to hear what one million dollars will buy you in public housing."

Five women who did not file suit are expected to describe alleged harassment.

I was reminded of that autumn day in 2004 when the two men, now bitter adversaries, gathered to praise each other in North Philadelphia and celebrate the PHA's latest shining project. "My heart is with public housing and public-housing residents," the mayor said, with Greene at his side.

They then cut the ribbon on the new, $4.2 million John F. Street Community Center.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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