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Changes abound at Howard Brown [21 July, 2010]

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Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC) recently went through a major upheaval when it was revealed that the executive director and chief financial officer had allegedly mishandled funds involving the Multi-Center AIDS Cohort Study (MACS) grant, which administers the grant.  This supposed discovery resulted in the departure of its two senior staff, CFO Mark Joslyn and CEO Michael Cook, and the transference of the grant to Northwestern University.  On June 1, Jamal Edwards, formerly a partner in the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis, took over as executive director.  At the time, the matter of the MACS grant was under review.

In an interview with Windy City Times, Edwards provided some updates.  Additional updates were provided via an e-mail from Leslie Schreiber of Winger Associates, the communications firm that is currently handling press inquiries.  So far, Howard Brown has instituted a compliance committee that reports to both Edwards and the board of directors on “financial and [human resources] issues and the like.” A new board has been voted on; former chair Stephen Phelps is now a member-at-large and the new board chairman is Mark D.  Andrews, who is senior litigation counsel at Career Education Corporation, a Hoffman Estates-based entity that describes itself as part of the “private, for-profit postsecondary education industry.”  The board vice-chair is Laura Angelucci, vice president of administration at UCAN (Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network), a social-service organization that works primarily with wards of the state system.  According to Schreiber, while the board traditionally conducts elections in March, these were delayed this year “in order to maintain consistency during the review.”

Editha Paras has joined Howard Brown as the new chief financial officer.  Her bio was not up on the website before Windy City Times went to press.  According to Schreiber, she holds “an MBA in finance and marketing from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.”  Her LinkedIn profile lists her as the owner of Dos Amigas restaurant; Schreiber wrote that her retail experience would especially facilitate HBHC’s management of The Brown Elephant, the organization’s thrift store that is a significant source of revenue.

There is the pending matter of the review.  According to Schreiber, “the NIH [ National Institutes of Health ] agreed to allow Howard Brown to conduct its own internal investigation, using outside counsel and forensic auditors.  As part of this review, Howard Brown also offered to look into its other federal grants, in order to ensure a complete and exhaustive review.”  She informed WCT that “we … expect to be in a position to publicly discuss the matter further” after HBHC shares its findings with the NIH “in the coming weeks.”  No exact date is available at this point.  The NIH was contacted for more details, and only sent a brief response: “It is NIH policy to neither confirm nor deny that a review has been initiated or is underway.”

In May, Edwards had told WCT that he was “not part of the culture of the past” of HBHC but part of its “culture of integrity.”  Asked this time what he was doing to change the culture at Howard Brown, he responded that there was no need to change the “remarkable” culture of the organization; the issue had been that “individuals had departed” from that “culture of integrity” and the task now was to return to that culture and to “re-develop” the mission of the organization.  He said that part of his work in that regard was underway as he went about “getting information from staff and community and various advisory boards,” such as that of the Lesbian Community Care Project.

In May, both Paul Fairchild, then-interim chief operating officer, and Edwards had spoken of having had meetings with “major donors,” and there was no indication of them having met with members of the larger community that the organization served.  Asked if he would now consider a community meeting, Edwards responded that “we hope to do that” but that HBHC is not yet in a position to do so until they have all the facts and the review is complete.

In an unusual move that was criticized by community members, HBHC has been communicating with the public on this matter only through an outside public-relations firm, Winger Marketing, even though it has a director of communications, Donald Rolfe, on staff.  (When WCT contacted Edwards for an interview, it was Schreiber who responded. ) Schreiber is listed as the contact person on HBHC’s website.  Asked why this was the case, both Edwards and Schreiber responded that Winger Marketing had been working with HBHC for the past two years (with Schreiber noting that it did so at a “substantially reduced rate”) and that Rolfe, according to Schreiber, is also “responsible for the business development of the Brown Elephant operations as his primary responsibility.”

Judging from the continuing responses and conversations taking place around town (and the letters received at this paper), the Chicago LGBT community is still waiting for a full account of exactly what transpired at HBHC.  Clearly, it wants an assurance that such an incident will not happen again before it rests its faith in a “culture of integrity” at the organization.  Edwards said that the organization’s service to the community had not faltered.  He pointed to the services that HBHC continues to provide to 500 primary care patients; the testing of 650 people; and the 500 homeless and at-risk youth with whom it has worked.  Windy City Timeswill continue to follow this story.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 21 July, 2010

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