Jewish Journal


February 26, 2007

Federation may face lawsuit over fundraiser Prizant’s firing


Craig Prizant

Craig Prizant

A looming lawsuit is threatening to shake up The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles -- causing a blanket of silence to descend on the city's largest Jewish philanthropic organization.

The former top fundraiser for The Federation is reportedly planning to file suit against the agency over his dismissal, possibly as early as this week, alleging that a friendship between The Federation's president and a subordinate was the reason for his firing. As of The Journal's press deadline Tuesday, no decision on the lawsuit filing had been made.

Craig Prizant served as the agency's executive vice president for financial resource 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 no reason for the decision, and no replacement has been named. Prizant also served as the Federation's senior vice president for marketing and communications for two years.

The Federation is an umbrella agency that supports local and international programs with a broad range of humanitarian efforts.

During Prizant's tenure, contributions to the agency have increased steadily. From 2003 to 2006, donations to The Jewish Federation's annual campaign increased from $42.4 million to $48 million. In 2006, The Federation surpassed its fundraising goal by $500,000.

Attorney Fredric N. Richman, who is representing Prizant, told The Journal that "The Federation had made an unacceptable offer [for severance payment] and litigation will ensue shortly.... I am certain that my client's rights will be vindicated."

One person familiar with the case said that if the suit goes to trial, as seems 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 for Prizant and for The Federation. Four additional persons did not return calls.

Most members of The Federation's executive board declined comment, citing an edict from Federation lawyer Wayne S. Flick that no one discuss the case with outsiders, particularly the press. Almost all sources insisted on anonymity as a precondition for speaking at all.

One major donor to The Federation, Richard Lewis, said he had asked personal friends on the executive board for information after learning of Prizant's dismissal. "I found out, zero, zero, zero," he said.

However, by piecing together various interviews, primarily with those objecting to Prizant's dismissal, it is possible to form a general picture of their version.

Since top Federation executives declined to speak to The Journal, their version of events is unknown.

According to the pro-Prizant explanation, the root cause of his firing was professional friction between him, as the chief campaign professional, and Sue Bender, who had been hired by Fishel to direct The Federation's prime philanthropy office, a program geared to "elite leaders in our community who possess the capacity to make a significant, multiyear commitment to fund an existing 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 gifts in six figures and above and to fund new programs. Both Prizant and Bender reported directly to Fishel, but as the friction continued, Bender was allegedly able to count on her friendship with Fishel to favor her viewpoint, culminating in Prizant's dismissal.

Prizant's defenders allege that his firing was for personal, not professional, reasons and assert that fundraising totals grew steadily under his stewardship.

The case is now in the hands of two lawyers, Flick for The Federation and Richman representing Prizant. Both are specialists in employment law, and Richman used to serve on behalf of The Federation in its labor negotiations for many years.

Flick initially declined comment, but on Monday he e-mailed a statement to The Journal that emphasized that "neither the specifics of Mr. Prizant's employment nor any ongoing discussion between him and The Federation are appropriate 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 been disclosed to persons outside The Federation, by individuals who do not have knowledge of all relevant facts.

"In keeping with its intent to treat personnel matters confidentially ... The Federation will not at this time comment specifically on those allegations or attempt to correct what appear to be numerous inaccuracies.

"After a careful review, The Federation is confident that no employee has been treated unfairly or improperly. The Federation will address any and all contrary allegations in the appropriate forum, and not in the press."

Informed of Flick's statement, Richman responded, "It is regrettable that The Federation, through its counsel, decided to go public with respect to the claim of our client, Craig Prizant, who had requested that the matter be handled privately so as not to cause The Federation and its officers embarrassment.

"But there is no doubt in my mind that by going public, ultimately and regrettably, the efficacy and vitality of The Federation and its campaign will be mortally wounded."

One Federation board member, who did not wish to be identified, called the dismissal "an injustice, which is being swept under the carpet, while the old 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 board member said.

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