IS A taxpayer-funded nonprofit tied to state Rep. Louise Bishop getting a secret bailout from the Laborers union?
That's what some Laborers' Local 332 members are asking after the union quietly purchased the Louise Williams Bishop Retail and Commercial Center, a mostly vacant building at 59th Street and Lancaster Avenue.
Construction on the shopping center, originally named after the West Philly state representative who obtained public grants for the project, began in 2010, but it was never completed. Today, Little Caesars Pizza is its sole tenant.
The building had been owned and operated by the Lancaster Avenue Redevelopment Corporation (LARC), a floundering nonprofit chaired by Anthony Lewis Jr., a member of the city's Board of Revision of Taxes and a regular contributor to Bishop's campaign.
Lewis also serves as a paid consultant for Local 332. His nephew, Sam Staten Jr., is the union's business manager.
"Out of the blue, all of a sudden we're buying a piece of real estate that hasn't made no money and hasn't even been completed? Something sounds real funny," said one of several Local 332 members who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from union leaders for criticizing the purchase.
Staten would not disclose the selling price of the property or discuss the deal in detail, other than to say he expected it to be a "great investment." He said Lewis' position as LARC's chairman and a union consultant didn't "have anything to do with the transaction."
"What's the deal with the story? Why you need a story?" Staten asked in response to questions about the sale.
The transfer-tax certification, dated June 13, 2014, indicates that the union paid $300,000 for the property. The fair-market value is listed at $481,900.
LARC, founded in 2001, has been hit with city, state and federal property liens and owes money to PECO, a real-estate agent and United Bank of Philadelphia, public records show. It is unclear exactly how much money LARC received in total. Some state contracts have been destroyed. But public records, interviews and news clips show that it received at least $1.9 million in state and city funds.
Bishop, 80, who is being investigated by a grand jury for allegedly accepting cash payments from an undercover operative, has declined to comment on LARC. She attended the shopping center's groundbreaking in October 2010 and issued a news release headlined "Bishop spearheads Lancaster Avenue revitalization project."
Financial records filed with the IRS show that LARC paid Bishop's daughter, Tamika Mezache, about $120,000 over three years, the Daily News reported last month. The IRS announced in March that LARC's tax-exempt status had been revoked because it stopped filing annual financial reports.
Lewis declined to comment on the Local 332 deal, but said LARC went belly-up when Mayor Nutter's administration and Gov. Corbett's administration clamped down on grants.
"When Corbett came in, that all changed. Those kinds of dollars weren't available anymore," Lewis said. "We weren't able to go back to that trough to get it. That's what happened there."
Business owners on Lancaster Avenue in Overbrook say they never saw the commercial revitalization that LARC had promised when applying for public funding. But Lewis insists that none of the money was misspent.
"We started out with good intentions," he said. "It was not like people squandered money or intended to squander money."