Former Kelly-Strayhorn employee sues theater, claims firing was retaliation

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A former employee of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater has sued the East Liberty arts organization, claiming she was fired in retaliation for warning co-workers and a former board member about a financial conflict of interest.

Candace Feldman, 31, of the Hill District, claims in the lawsuit that Janera Solomon, the theater’s executive director for six years, paid her father, Phil Solomon, between $30,000 and $36,000 a year to use his steelpan drums for an educational program called Soundwaves, which the theater started in 2012.

Ms. Feldman, who began working at the Kelly-Strayhorn in February, was hired to produce programs aimed at attracting families with children to the theater. 

In March, the Kelly-Strayhorn’s managing director, Alex Bard, told Ms. Feldman that the theater “had significantly overpaid for the steel drums, but that he could not find the paper trail,” according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. 

The theater began using the instruments shortly after Mr. Solomon and his business emerged from voluntary bankruptcy protection, according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Bard’s comment prompted Ms. Feldman to contact Jamie Rutherford, a former member and chair of the theater’s board of directors. Ms. Feldman alerted her “to these financial irregularities,” the lawsuit says. Ms. Rutherford then forwarded the information to the current board.

The theater’s code of ethics, which requires employees to report ethical violations, states that they shall not “suffer an adverse employment consequence,” the suit says.

Ms. Solomon fired Ms. Feldman on May 16. Ms. Feldman received a termination agreement stating that, “the position of Family Program Producer is no longer useful at this time,” according to the lawsuit.

Ms. Feldman’s complaint, based on Pennsylvania’s whistleblower law, states that she was making good faith reports of “wrongdoing and waste” when she reported Ms. Solomon’s “financial and accounting irregularities” to the Kelly-Strayhorn’s board of directors.

Her lawyer, Samuel J. Cordes, is seeking more than $35,000 in back wages and benefits plus actual, compensatory and punitive damages.

In an email message sent Friday, Ms. Solomon said she could not comment on personnel matters.

“The KST board has a process for approving arrangements where there is the potential for conflict of interest to exist. That process has been in place for several years and was followed in this case, and the board was well aware of the arrangement with Phil Solomon which has been for quite some time,” Ms. Solomon wrote in the email.

The Kelly-Strayhorn employs twelve people and its annual budget is $1.25 million, according to its 2013 application for funding from the Regional Asset District board.

Ms. Solomon‘‍s father is a steelpan drum musician who in the 1990s started Solomon Steel Pan. Co., a local company that made steelpan instruments.

Bankruptcy court records show that Mr. Solomon, his business, Solomon Steel Pan. Co. and his band, Steel Impressions, filed for voluntary bankruptcy in September 2011, listing assets of $50,000 to $100,000 and debts of $100,000 to $500,000. The bankruptcy ended on March 29, 2012, and the Soundwaves program began in April 2012.

Earlier this year, after Ms. Rutherford forwarded Ms. Feldman’s emails about the high cost of the steel drums to theater board chairman Cabot Earle, Mr. Earle forwarded Ms. Feldman’s emails to Ms. Solomon.

Minutes of an April 22 human relations meeting show that Mr. Bard told committee members that Ms. Feldman had told coworkers that the theater paid Mr. Solomon, “upwards of $36,000 a year for drums that at most should cost in the $10,000 to $15,000 range, and that these payments began as far back as 2012,” according to the lawsuit.

Ms. Solomon offered Ms. Feldman a job at the Kelly-Strayhorn when the two women attended an arts conference in January in New York City. Ms. Feldman grew up in Kansas. She moved here from New York City, where she was special projects manager for 651 ARTS, a Brooklyn-based theater dedicated to the African arts diaspora.

“I found her to be very capable,” said Shay Wafer, executive director of 651 ARTS, who said that Ms. Feldman, whom she promoted twice, is still handling a few special projects for 651 ARTS.

Ms. Solomon, 39, took over the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in June 2008, and is considered by many in the Pittsburgh arts community as an emerging leader. Some have suggested her as a potential post-bankruptcy steward for Downtown’s debt-burdened August Wilson Center.

In April, the Pittsburgh Foundation gave the Kelly-Strayhorn a $50,000 grant so Ms. Solomon could hold community meetings and lead a steering committee whose goal is to develop arts programs for the African-American community and draft a new mission statement for the August Wilson Center.

The lawsuit may shine a light on internal problems at the Kelly-Strayhorn. In earlier interviews with the Post-Gazette, 11 former staff members, as well as two former board members, described Ms. Solomon as a demanding boss who can be engaging when it comes to community and donor relations. But former employees say she is out of her depth when it comes to organizational and financial management.

In a May 16 letter Ms. Feldman sent to the Kelly-Strayhorn’s board of directors, she wrote:

“Be aware that this organization is gaining a negative national reputation for the revolving number of employees and the abusive, aggressive culture that exists within its walls. To date, I am the 29th staff member to be terminated or forced out in the last 33 months. That is an estimated 80 percent turnover rate, which is way above the average,” Ms. Feldman wrote.

Small arts organizations often have double-digit annual turnover percentages, according to surveys of the non-profit community, but Kelly-Strayhorn’s are unusually high even for the arts sector.

The Post-Gazette has obtained copies of several resignation letters written by former Kelly-Strayhorn staff members, including Catena Bergevin, now director of development for the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. Ms. Bergevin resigned on Oct. 22, 2013. She declined to comment for this story.

But on the day she quit, documents obtained by the Post-Gazette show that Ms. Bergevin had a detailed email exchange with Ms. Solomon about the theater’s finances.

In one message, Ms. Bergevin told Ms. Solomon:

“Your assurance when I came on board that the organization carried a three-month cash reserve (which should be approximately $240,000) was not evident. Programs (as worthwhile as they are) as Soundwaves are draining the organization at $33,600 a year for instrument rental costs. The expense has now been reduced to $16,800 but continues to drain our finances,” Ms. Bergevin wrote.

In her final message to Ms. Solomon, Ms. Bergevin wrote, “As a result of your comments and approach to this challenge, the stressful working conditions and the fact that a substantial pay cut was not what I signed up for when accepting this position, I am resigning from my position effective immediately.”

 


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

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