Fired in Flap Over Construction Deal, Ex-Employee Sues Joint

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 22, 2007, issue of August 24, 2007.

The primary Jewish charity in Russia is being sued by a former employee who says he was fired after raising questions about a business deal in Moscow.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is funded by American Jewish federations, is in Jerusalem court against Yoram Abergel. An employee of the JDC for 18 years until last summer, Abergel last served as the JDC’s Moscow country director. In this position, he took part in the process of finding a construction firm to renovate the Moscow Jewish Community Center.

When Abergel’s superiors chose a contractor from Belarus without consulting him, Abergel asked for an investigation. A few weeks later, he was fired. The head of the JDC’s work in Russia wrote an e-mail to Abergel at the time, and explained: “As for the choice of companies, it is mine, that’s the way it will be. Case closed.”

“If you want to cause a crisis, that’s what you will get,” said the e-mail from Abergel’s superior, Asher Ostrin. “I suggest strongly that you back off.”

The suit from Abergel joins a hailstorm of criticism against the JDC’s operating style in the former Soviet Union (see related article, above). Like Abergel in his suit, many critics have said that the JDC makes its decisions in the region with little in the way of open decision-making.

The JDC’s executive vice president, Steve Schwager, said he could not comment on the specifics of the case. He did say, however, that “our attorneys believe that Yoram’s case has no merits.”

In his lawsuit, Abergel is asking the JDC, for which he had worked since 1988, to rehire him. Things seemed to be going well a few months before he was fired, when Ostrin wrote an evaluation of him. In the evaluation, Ostrain wrote that Abergel needs to work on “acting more quickly on decisions.” But he also said that Abergel “thinks big. Understands ethos and strategy of dept. and JDC,” and also that he “shares authority. Cares about his people and communicates that.”

In documents submitted to the court, Abergel argues that the conflict began in April 2006, when the JDC settled on a firm to renovate the Nikitskaya Jewish Community Center in Moscow. A few weeks after a committee came together and chose one firm from Moscow, a few senior staffers in the JDC’s offices in Jerusalem reversed the decision without consulting him and chose another firm from Minsk, Belarus.

Abergel has said that the switch raised questions because the firm in Belarus allegedly was asking the JDC for more money and had few of the contacts in Moscow necessary to do construction work. Furthermore, Abergel pointed out that a key JDC employee involved in the JCC was from Minsk.

After the JDC decided to change contractors again, Abergel asked for an investigation. In an e-mail to Schwager, Abergel wrote that “these zig-zags and irregularities must raise eyebrows, not just about the Nikitskaya tender process, but about the organizational culture and decision-making process of the department as a whole.”

A report written up by the JDC’s attorney in Jerusalem said that Abergel misunderstood the process and that he asked needless questions about the deal. “I gained the impression that what he said was not reliable,” wrote the JDC’s attorney, Yair Shilo, about Abergel in his report. “Things said by him were from the point of view of someone who will say a lot in order to clear himself of any blemish.”

Abergel has argued that this report was not an independent investigation, and the JDC’s New York headquarters have commissioned a new examination, which is pending alongside the lawsuit. In the most recent court hearing, July 15, the judge asked the two sides to find a compromise.

As for the Moscow deal, after Abergel was fired the JDC went ahead with the Belarus firm. The newly renovated center is set to open next month, a year later than initially planned.

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