Fired former executive director sues Aspen Film

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Lawsuit: Member of embattled 
nonprofit’s board led ouster

The former executive director of Aspen Film is suing the nonprofit, alleging the embattled organization terminated him illegally last month.

John Thew was abruptly fired April 17, an ouster orchestrated for “personal reasons” by a member of the board, says the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in Pitkin County District Court.

The board member’s efforts included “ginning up fabricated and unsubstantiated tales of alleged ‘improper behavior’ toward former employees such as ‘stomping his foot’ and making ‘frightening gestures,’” wrote Thew’s attorney, Peter Thomas of Aspen.

Thomas declined to elaborate Thursday on who the board member is, the personal reasons or the alleged gestures.

Aspen Film has seen numerous staff turnover at the director and board levels, and in its lower ranks. One former employee told the Aspen Daily News earlier this month that, by his count, 11 staff members have left in the past 22 months. The lawsuit says Thew, who was hired in July 2015, was Aspen Film’s fourth executive director since 2010 and that seven new board members joined the nonprofit during his tenure.

People with knowledge of his dismissal told the Daily News that it concerned his budget handling, staff retention and communications with the board. Most asked to remain anonymous. Aspen Film’s primary annual fundraiser date was changed to New Year’s Eve from an Oscars party, and was called a “financial disaster” by one insider who blamed Thew for the outcome. That person, however, praised Thew for bringing in new donors to Aspen Film.

Efforts to reach Aspen Film board members were unsuccessful. A woman who answered the phone at the nonprofit declined comment and asked that her name not be used.

Thew, who earned a $95,000 salary, was hired after a national search, the lawsuit says. He had been managing director of Theatre Aspen.

To hire him away, Aspen Film’s board “promised Mr. Thew a minimum three-year term of employment with a generous compensation package and other incentives, all of which were then memorialized in a written contract …,” Thomas wrote.

While staffers and others with knowledge of Aspen Film criticized Thew for, among other things, employee turnover, the lawsuit says the staffing before and during his tenure “is attributable to natural attrition and the transience of the local community and work force.”

One woman who resigned said in a letter to the board that Aspen Film “wasn’t a healthy working environment.”

The lawsuit, however, paints Thew’s tenure as a success. It says he was terminated without cause, despite increasing the nonprofit’s income 5 percent, from $903,000 to just over $1 million. Thomas also wrote that revenue from film submission fees increased 51 percent, from nearly $100,000 to $151,000; that Thew introduced on-screen advertising that brought in $36,300 in new revenue; and that he established a $230,000 reserve fund.

“Despite Mr. Thew’s numerous achievements and contributions to the growth and success of Aspen Film, he was not able to stem the tide of staff turnover [that] has long plagued” the organization, Thomas wrote.

The lawsuit says Thew was fired “without notice or cause in violation of the parties’ three-year contract.” The contract established a three-year term that was subject to automatic annual renewals unless either Aspen Film or Thew gave written notice to terminate it within 90 days prior to the expiration of the term.

The lawsuit has one claim, breach of contract, with Thomas writing that his firing without notice was a violation, as was a board member’s “intentional” disclosure to the press of Thew’s termination and salary, per the employment contract terms.

“Due to the specialized nature of Mr. Thew’s profession, the limited employers and employment opportunities in the field, and the real risk of stigma associated with his wrongful termination without cause and public dissemination of his compensation package, Mr. Thew will suffer additional and substantial special damages if unable to continue with his professional career path in the Roaring Fork Valley and forced to move to another city or sate for employment,” the lawsuit says.

chad@aspendailynews.com