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Howard Brown: More questions than answers [28 April, 2010]

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It has now been almost a month since Windy City Times first broke the news that Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC) had placed its CEO and CFO, Michael Cook and Mark Joslyn, respectively, on paid administrative leave.  Since then, HBHC has revealed no details about the reasons for its actions, only issuing a series of increasingly cryptic press releases promising further details.

Subsequently, Cook stepped down and Joslyn was let go.  After weeks of silence and much speculation in the community, the agency made two critical announcements in a press release dated April 26 in which it revealed the nature of the issues surrounding the departure of the two men and the name of its new CEO.  In the press release, HBHC announced that it is “cooperating with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on an investigation into allegations of mishandling funds involving the Multi-Center AIDS Cohort Study (MACS), one of the center’s research grants.”  It added that, “ [t]o protect the integrity of the investigation the Board and its counsel must limit the amount of information released to the public.  Once the organization releases its findings to the NIH it hopes to be able to share additional information with the public.”

The press release went on to say that HBHC’s board of directors is working with the NIH to make “management changes, [implement] internal controls and an independent audit of all federal grants.”  It stated that there was “no reason to believe that any funds were misappropriated for personal gain or used for purposes other than the center’s mission and services.  Findings show that the funds were used to support services and programs at Howard Brown.”

This release confirmed news reported by Windy City Times two weeks ago that Howard Brown “transferred its lead agency status of the MACS to long-time research partner, Northwestern University.”  The transfer is supposed to ensure that the MACS study continues without interruption.  According to HBHC, “This transfer will not have a significant financial impact on the organization.   In its capacity as a subcontractor, Howard Brown will continue to receive nearly the same amount of money for the work it performs under the grant.”

Howard Brown has also named Jamal Edwards as the organization’s new CEO and president, effective June 1.  According to the official bio, Edwards was, prior to joining HBHC, a partner in the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, “where he represented foreign and domestic corporations in litigation, intellectual property, and corporate transactional matters” and the firm’s first openly gay partner in Chicago.  The press release indicates that Edwards is no stranger to Howard Brown, having served as the agency’s primary outside counsel while at Kirkland & Ellis.  It also states that he “lead numerous Kirkland teams representing Howard Brown in countless matters ranging from mergers and acquisitions to litigation to real estate.”  The release also states that Edwards was a co-chair of HBHC’s 2009 gala. 

Meanwhile, community leaders are beginning to voice their frustration and concerns about what many describe as a lack of transparency on the part of an important organization.  The controversy has raised the specter of old scandals at HBHC, and it is causing some to seriously worry about the impact this issue will have on the most vulnerable population: the clients who need and require the health care services provided by the Center.

Rick Garcia, public policy director of Equality Illinois, summed up Howard Brown’s silence, which has spread through all levels of the organization, telling Windy City Times that “ [t] he board itself has battened down the hatches and is engaging in a code of silence; there is no transparency.”  Referring to a previous scandal at HBHC, he said he was bewildered as to how bad the current issue could be that the board felt compelled to be so silent: “I can’t imagine the situation being worse than when the development officer was selling crystal meth.  And even then they were more transparent, and cleaned up under the great leadership of Michael Cook.  Now, instead of letting us know, they’ve just been silent.  I’ve been criticized for saying this, but I’ll repeat myself: they’re acting like our own little Vatican; they are trying to sweep it under the rug.  That’s exactly how the Vatican operates.  If we can criticize the Vatican, we can criticize Howard Brown.”

Currently, Winger Associations handles Howard Brown’s public relations even though the agency employs a director of communications, Donald Rolfe.  Garcia did not think that either the public-relations firm or HBHC’s attorneys were doing a good job: “Whoever is advising them should be fired on the spot.  You have to get ahead of the story but they’ve just allowed the rumor mill to have a field day.”

Garcia pointed out that the silence could have a detrimental effect on morale and on funders, given that people in these economic times are likely to be even more stringent about where their money goes because, in his words, “Who is going to support an organization that has a cloud over it?”  Asked what the agency could do to recover its public image, he responded, “The recovery point was three weeks ago—now we’re way past it.”  He was also concerned about the effect of the scandal and silence on client services, which, he emphasized, provided much-needed health care to those who need an affirming environment: “I know people who drive in from Bolingbrook and Rockford because they don’t feel like they can get health care in their communities.”

State Rep. Greg Harris expressed similar concerns about the clients of Howard Brown and said he preferred to exercise caution before rushing to judgment, citing the need to “be very protective of the clients who are going to Howard Brown for health care; we need to ensure their needs are taken care of.”

Lori Cannon, a community AIDS activist who works for Vital Bridges’ GrocreryLand, also expressed concern about the clients when she spoke with Windy City Times.  Like Garcia, she questioned the “wall of silence” that has come down on the issue.  She was also critical of the hiring of an outside firm to handle public relations, saying that the move “shows arrogance and a sense of entitlement.  Donors don’t appreciate that kind of attitude.”  However, she also noted that “Howard Brown has been at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic from day one and has provided case management, medical services and lab work to clients.”  Cannon worried that this situation might create “undue stress on a population that’s already facing stress on a day-to-day basis.”  While rumors are flying, Cannon said she took no pleasure in the talk of “skullduggery and machinations.”

Questions also continue to revolve around the fact that Cook and board chair Steve Phelps are reportedly ex-partners personally, and some wonder how that conflict of interest was and is being handled.

On a more recent note, this past weekend, reportedly a high-level meeting was held with HBHC donors, but no one is speaking yet about the impact of the scandal on the agency’s future.

Windy City Times will continue to pursue this story.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 28 April, 2010


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