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Wednesday, July 2, 2008 08:35 am

Jacked

Troubles at Phoenix Center and Chatham business have something in common

Jack Bishop, the former executive director of the Phoenix Center who left the AIDS service organization under a cloud of controversy, has again been accused of financial mismanagement. The Internal Revenue Service has notified Phoenix board members that Bishop failed to pay payroll taxes, and last month each board member was sent a bill for his or her proportionate share, ranging from $5,000 to more than $60,000. Meanwhile, Bishop has disappeared from the premises of Mulberry’s — a gift shop in Chatham that he owns with four partners formerly associated with the Phoenix Center — along with funds from the shop.
Bishop’s departure may have been triggered by a small-claims lawsuit filed by a Mulberry’s customer who loaned Bishop money to buy more inventory for the store. According to court documents, Bishop signed a memorandum of understanding on Sept. 1, 2007, promising to pay this customer $3,600 by May 31. When he failed to pay, the customer filed suit. Soon after, Bishop vanished.
One of the co-owners of the shop, contacted on Tuesday by Illinois Times, declined to comment about Bishop’s departure and said the other partners also wouldn’t comment. “We’re just trying to get through it,” he said. The shop’s Web site, however, presents a charming story of how the co-owners found themselves in business together: “All we can say is that fate led five talented individuals to an identical spot in the road at the same exact time. While we all have experienced our bumps in the road, we grew together and decided it was time to jump into the business world head first . . . ” it says. The story ends with “They all lived happily ever after.”
In reality, their partnership was formed when Bishop left the Phoenix Center in May 2006, just after board members discovered that he had opened credit cards in a board member’s name, made payments by forging signatures on Phoenix Center checks, run up $100,000 in debt, and neglected to pay crucial bills. Bishop steadfastly denied any wrongdoing [see Dusty Rhodes, “Phoenix rising,” July 13, 2006], and filed a civil suit against the board members, claiming that they had defamed him. A few Phoenix staffers and one board member who were Bishop’s core supporters refused to believe the claims of financial malfeasance and joined him in establishing Mulberry’s. At the same time, Phoenix board members reported Bishop’s financial shenanigans to the Springfield Police Department in the hope that he would face criminal charges. The Sangamon County state’s attorney, however, declined to prosecute.
“The case was reviewed by the state’s attorney’s office, and there was not sufficient evidence to charge any criminal offenses,” says John Milhiser, first assistant state’s attorney. “It was reviewed by the former first assistant [Steve Weinhoeft] and another felony attorney, and there was insufficient evidence. The case showed mismanagement, but no personal gain.”
Phoenix Center board member John Kerstein calls that decision unfortunate, especially for the co-owners of Mulberry’s. “All of our information was given to the Springfield Police Department and turned over to the state’s attorney. Had they acted on any of this, these people in Chatham wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in right now,” he says, wondering whether Mulberry partners will also discover that they owe the IRS payroll taxes. “It makes me so angry that this happened again, when it could have been prevented.”
Bishop’s civil suit against his former Phoenix colleagues has shrunk. Four of the six board members have been dismissed as defendants; the two remaining defendants face only two of the original six counts charged against them.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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