Philadelphia developer and former City Council candidate Ori Feibush won $45,000 in a suit against ward leader Ed Nesmith and an associated PAC for allegedly defrauding him out of $106,000 in campaign funds last year.
The lawsuit revolved around Nesmith’s apparent failure to deliver get-out-the-vote services for Feibush, who ran a bloody campaign against incumbent 2nd District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson.
Wally Zimolong, a lawyer for Feibush, eventually dropped the fraud charge and sought a smaller award for breach of contract. Feibush was ultimately awarded a $60,000 judgement, but Nesmith successfully countersued over $15,000 worth of contractual payments he said Feibush withheld after the election due to the dispute.
In a phone interview, the developer described Nesmith as “a thief” who ran a “sham” political action committee out of the 2nd Ward – one that failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of income.
“It’s clear that Ed’s entire organization was a front,” he said. “I hope this court victory is a warning to other candidates who get taken by shadowy ward leaders that look at Election Day like it’s the lottery.”
The developer said his campaign paid Nesmith and his PAC – known as “COPS,” or “Citizens Organizing for Pennsylvania Securities” – $106,000 to boost turnout in the 2nd District race, and alleged he received virtually nothing in return.
Feibush sued after the ward leader failed to produce receipts fully accounting for supposed Election Day expenses.
“There were no receipts of money in or out,” he said. “They changed their story on the stand depending on the moment. But it was obvious to the jurors that they had pocketed the money. It was clearly not used for an election.”
Johnson went on to win that election, garnering more than 63 percent of the vote.
Sean Stevens, a lawyer for COPS speaking on Nesmith’s behalf, said the jury’s decision was hardly a decisive indictment of the ward leader or the PAC. Both entities were ordered to pay Feibush $22,500 each – far less than the sum Feibush claims he lost.
“They found that COPS performed 75 percent of the contract,” Stevens said.
He asserted that the group had done its job.
“COPS was working hard to elect Ori on Election Day,” he said. “They’ll be more careful with the candidates they select in the future, maybe someone less litigious. And they’ll keep better receipts to avoid a repeat of this.”
The trial largely revolved around Nesmith and COPS presenting receipts that supposedly showed payments for GOTV services that contradicted Feibush’s claim that the money was simply embezzled.
Yet in this regard, the defense still came up short – and Feibush claimed that many of the receipts presented at trial were, in fact, for election work that occurred outside the 2nd District.
“Ed included ward receipts for divisions that had nothing to do with our election. The jury did the best they could to sort everything out, but it was like chasing a ghost,” Feibush said.
The defense argued that the developer’s supposed unpopularity in Johnson’s district had made it hard to collect receipts.
“This is Kenyatta Johnson’s backyard and it was a very rough-and-tumble election,” he said. “So there were some individuals who were reluctant to put in writing that they worked for Feibush.”
Feibush said that claim was laughable.
“He supposedly had 500 people who said they didn't want others to know they worked for Ori, even though they were supposed to be out on Election Day wearing Feibush T-shirts and handing out my campaign material,” he said.
Lawyers for Nesmith and COPS also tried to assert that there was no connection between the ward leader and the PAC. Feibush said this was a strategy to spread more of the blame to an organization whose bank account had been largely cleaned out nearly a year ago.
“Ed – at least, to me and in court – has always stated COPS is not Ed Nesmith,” Stevens said. “Ed Nesmith is Ed Nesmith.”
However, Nesmith admitted to the Inquirer last year that he was, in fact, involved with COPS.
In other highlights from the trial, which dragged on for over a year, former undersheriff and former 2nd Ward leader Joe Vignola testified as a character witness on Nesmith’s behalf. In another turn, Feibush said evidence emerged showing that Nesmith resided at a property he owns in Delaware, instead of his official address in Philadelphia: a partially renovated garage, which doubles as the mailing address for COPS.
Additionally, financial records uncovered in the discovery phase of the trial also revealed that COPS had taken in nearly $150,000 in revenues between April to May of last year. Although it did not affect the outcome of the trial, it’s worth noting that the PAC has failed to file campaign disclosures since 2007.
“The penalty for not filing is paying the fine, so that’s the strategy they’ve used,” Stevens said, of the group’s conduct.
Longtime Daily News political reporter and editor, and former Committee of Seventy director Zack Stalberg, said he had “mixed feelings” about the trial.
“If Ori is really trying to be this ‘New Philadelphia’ politician, then paying off a ward leader is not a good way to establish new practices for local elections,” he said. “On the other hand, a ward leader finally got caught doing this. There’s a long history of candidates getting ripped off by ward leaders who take their money and then don't deliver.”
Stevens said he was looking into filing a post-verdict motions to dispute the award. Feibush pledged that any money he received would be refunded to campaign donors.