An allegation of ethical impropriety made against state Attorney General Josh Shapiro in conjunction with Orphans’ Court proceedings reviewing the sale of the Painted Bride Art Center in Old City was deemed immaterial by the Attorney General’s Office following a quick probe initiated by Eric Fillman, Shapiro’s chief integrity officer.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Fillman and Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello, who presided over the Sept. 10 Orphans’ Court hearing, attorney Jonathan Stein said a financial witness testifying on behalf of the Bride is also the treasurer for Shapiro for Pennsylvania, the attorney general’s fund-raising PAC.
Stein, who attended the hearing as an interested citizen and not as a party to the case, characterized the relationship between Shapiro and the witness, Grant Rawdin, founder and chief executive of Wescott Financial Advisory Group, as posing an “ethics and conflict” problem that was not disclosed to the court.
The purpose of the hearing was to get the imprimatur of Orphans’ Court for the controversial proposed sale of the Bride building at 230 Vine St. to Groom Investments for about $4.5 million. The building has been a performance center since the Bride acquired it in 1982, and is sheathed in mirrored mosaics created by the artist Isaiah Zagar, who spent the decade of the 1990s creating them.
Groom intends to build a condo building with parking on the site, almost certainly demolishing the Zagar artwork along with the building and the Bride’s 200-seat performance venue.
The Attorney General’s Office, whose role in such proceedings is to look after the interest of the public, concluded at the end of the hearing that it had “no objection” to the sale.
Stein, who is opposed to the pending sale and destruction of the artwork and performance space, characterized the alleged conflict as “a grave matter of broad public-interest concern.”
In an email to Fillman following the initial letter, he called for Shapiro’s office to void its determination of no objection and to recuse itself from further proceedings “to retain the public trust that is essential for all public officials and for the public’s trust in the due and fair processes of our court system.”
In a letter sent to Carrafiello late Thursday, Mark A. Pacella, chief deputy attorney general for the Office of Charitable Trusts, said that following its investigation, the office concluded that Stein’s “concerns are unfounded.”
Pacella said that Rawdin’s participation in the hearing did not influence the attorney general and that Shapiro and Rawdin did not discuss the matter.
“There were no communications between Mr. Rawdin and any other member” of the Attorney General’s Office, Pacella wrote. “The first time anyone in the office knew of Mr. Rawdin’s involvement was the day before the hearing.”
No attorney at the hearing raised the issue, including attorneys for Zagar.
Rawdin’s involvement, Pacella concluded, “had no impact on" the attorney general.
“We therefore did not bring this matter to the court’s attention,” Pacella said, adding that the “attorney general’s narrow role [in the case] is to ensure the Painted Bride, as a nonprofit charity, complies with our state laws in pursuing its mission. Our office has concluded that this transaction did not violate any of those standards.”
In a separate letter to Stein on Thursday, Fillman acknowledged that “in hindsight,” the Rawdin-Shapiro relationship "could have been disclosed for greater public confidence by any party in the case.” But, he added, “we believe disclosure was not required.”
Reached late Friday, Rawdin said by email, “I had no interaction with the AG’s team. I was not involved in any part of this legal matter until I was asked to testify about the funding that would become available with the proceeds from the sale.”
In an interview, Stein said that the issue is that a “main Bride financial witness is the treasurer for Shapiro.... The public is not assured.”
Moreover, Stein said, “the AG is wrong in simply saying [his role] was to ensure a Bride mission. The real test, as the judge said, is protecting the larger public interest, which includes preserving the iconic, world-famous Zagar murals and the unique performance/art spaces that have served underserved communities and the larger public so importantly for decades.”
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who has been following the case, said he agrees with Stein about the murals’ preservation. Rendell said that he believes Shapiro’s office needs to consider the importance of the mosaics to the public and the city, and that he has spoken with Shapiro about it in the past several months.
“I tried to convince Josh,” Rendell said. But in the end, he said, Shapiro told Rendell that “the disparity was [too] great” between the Groom offer and a roughly $2.5 million bid by the Lantern Theater Company that would preserve the mosaics. Rendell said Shapiro felt he “could not object.”