Federation may face lawsuit over fundraiser Prizant’s firing
A looming lawsuit is threatening to shake up The Jewish Federation ofGreater Los Angeles — causing a blanket of silence to descend on the city’slargest Jewish philanthropic organization.
The former top fundraiser for The Federation is reportedly planning to filesuit against the agency over his dismissal, possibly as early as this week,alleging that a friendship between The Federation’s president and asubordinate was the reason for his firing. As of The Journal’s press deadlineTuesday, no decision on the lawsuit filing had been made.
Craig Prizant served as the agency’s executive vice president for financialresource development from 2003 until he was fired on Jan. 12 by John Fishel,president of The Federation since 1992. In a memo to staff, Fishel gave noreason for the decision, and no replacement has been named. Prizant alsoserved as the Federation’s senior vice president for marketing andcommunications for two years.
The Federation is an umbrella agency that supports local and internationalprograms with a broad range of humanitarian efforts.
During Prizant’s tenure, contributions to the agency have increasedsteadily. From 2003 to 2006, donations to The Jewish Federation’s annualcampaign increased from $42.4 million to $48 million. In 2006, TheFederation surpassed its fundraising goal by $500,000.
Attorney Fredric N. Richman, who is representing Prizant, told The Journalthat “The Federation had made an unacceptable offer [for severance payment]and litigation will ensue shortly…. I am certain that my client’s rightswill be vindicated.”
One person familiar with the case said that if the suit goes to trial, asseems very likely at this point, “it will be a blockbuster.”
Over the past week, The Journal has spoken to 15 Federation lay leaders,donors and present and former staff members, in addition to lawyers forPrizant and for The Federation. Four additional persons did not returncalls.
Most members of The Federation’s executive board declined comment, citing anedict from Federation lawyer Wayne S. Flick that no one discuss the casewith outsiders, particularly the press. Almost all sources insisted onanonymity as a precondition for speaking at all.
One major donor to The Federation, Richard Lewis, said he had asked personalfriends on the executive board for information after learning of Prizant’sdismissal. “I found out, zero, zero, zero,” he said.
However, by piecing together various interviews, primarily with thoseobjecting to Prizant’s dismissal, it is possible to form a general pictureof their version.
Since top Federation executives declined to speak to The Journal, theirversion of events is unknown.
According to the pro-Prizant explanation, the root cause of his firing wasprofessional friction between him, as the chief campaign professional, andSue Bender, who had been hired by Fishel to direct The Federation’s primephilanthropy office, a program geared to “elite leaders in our community whopossess the capacity to make a significant, multiyear commitment to fund anexisting program or create a new one that addresses their passion,”according to The Federation Web site.
Bender’s job was to cultivate the largest donors, those able to make giftsin six figures and above and to fund new programs. Both Prizant and Benderreported directly to Fishel, but as the friction continued, Bender wasallegedly able to count on her friendship with Fishel to favor herviewpoint, culminating in Prizant’s dismissal.
Prizant’s defenders allege that his firing was for personal, notprofessional, reasons and assert that fundraising totals grew steadily underhis stewardship.
The case is now in the hands of two lawyers, Flick for The Federation andRichman representing Prizant. Both are specialists in employment law, andRichman used to serve on behalf of The Federation in its labor negotiationsfor many years.
Flick initially declined comment, but on Monday he e-mailed a statement toThe Journal that emphasized that “neither the specifics of Mr. Prizant’semployment nor any ongoing discussion between him and The Federation areappropriate for public consumption or discussion at this time.”
The statement continued, “The Federation is aware that, unfortunately,certain unsubstantiated allegations and inaccurate assertions may have beendisclosed to persons outside The Federation, by individuals who do not haveknowledge of all relevant facts.
“In keeping with its intent to treat personnel matters confidentially …The Federation will not at this time comment specifically on thoseallegations or attempt to correct what appear to be numerous inaccuracies.
“After a careful review, The Federation is confident that no employee hasbeen treated unfairly or improperly. The Federation will address any and allcontrary allegations in the appropriate forum, and not in the press.”
Informed of Flick’s statement, Richman responded, “It is regrettable thatThe Federation, through its counsel, decided to go public with respect tothe claim of our client, Craig Prizant, who had requested that the matter behandled privately so as not to cause The Federation and its officersembarrassment.
“But there is no doubt in my mind that by going public, ultimately andregrettably, the efficacy and vitality of The Federation and its campaignwill be mortally wounded.”
One Federation board member, who did not wish to be identified, called thedismissal “an injustice, which is being swept under the carpet, while theold guard [on the board] doesn’t want to be bothered.
“The morale of The Federation staff is low; they’re scared to speak out,scared of losing their jobs, everybody is walking on eggshells,” the boardmember said.