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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 02:32 pm

Faze the board

Former Phoenix Center director sues board members for defamation

The Phoenix Center — a nonprofit organization that provides testing, counseling, and housing for people with HIV and AIDS — has been sued for defamation by its former executive director.

Jack Bishop, who had led Phoenix Center for five years, resigned in June after the board of directors raised questions about financial mismanagement. In a lawsuit filed Monday in state court, Bishop charges Phoenix Center and each member of the board with defamation and interference with his ability to gain employment elsewhere.

Much of Bishop’s complaint was based on statements Phoenix directors made in an Illinois Times cover story, “Phoenix rising,” published July 13. In his lawsuit, Bishop claims that he had lined up contracts as a fundraising consultant with two other nonprofit agencies, and that those agencies canceled the contracts after Phoenix Center board president Phil Giger e-mailed them a link to the Illinois Times story.

Meanwhile, Springfield Police spokesman Sgt. Pat Ross confirms that Bishop was named as the suspect in crimes of forgery, credit-card fraud and theft more than $300 — all felony charges — in a series of police reports listing either Phoenix Center or its treasurer as victims. Filed over the past two weeks, the timing of the police reports had nothing to do with Bishop’s lawsuit, Giger says, noting that he and John Kerstein, the Phoenix Center treasurer, had tried to file reports as early as June.

“It’s been very a technical [process] as far as gathering affidavits and documents,” Giger says. “This has been in the works for quite a while.”

Bishop’s attorney, John Baker, says that the police reports will not affect his client’s civil case.

“If they seek criminal charges, that’s only a portion of our case. That’s not the entire case,” Baker says, adding that Bishop didn’t break any laws.

“[The board members] have destroyed his entire professional reputation. He can’t get work for a not-for-profit agency in the state of Illinois. He would very much like to go and work for not-for-profits that focus for the same issues that Phoenix Center focuses on,” Baker says. “They have foreclosed upon him the opportunity to do that. He can’t do these things that would benefit that community — because of their actions.”

Kerstein, though, says he now questions Bishop’s stated desire to help people with HIV or AIDS.

“Through all of what went on, Jack’s stance was that everything he did was for the betterment of the Phoenix Center. And we couldn’t understand how buying a grand piano helped our center in any way,” Kerstein says, referring to one of Bishop’s purchases that has become a matter of dispute. “Now we can’t understand how bringing a lawsuit and having us incur all these legal expenses is going to help our clients in any way.”

The lawsuit is not Bishop’s only salvo against the Phoenix Center. His attorney, Baker, has also filed a complaint under the Illinois Personnel Records Review Act, charging that Phoenix Center officials unfairly revealed disciplinary action taken against Bishop to Illinois Times.

“They told you he had been suspended, which is a disciplinary action. It’s not that it was false — he had been suspended,” Baker says, “but the law says you can’t disclose it.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.


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