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Jamal Edwards leaves Howard Brown, agency loses more key staff
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2012-08-31

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Jamal Edwards. Photo by Kat Fitzgerald


In a stunning turn of events, Jamal Edwards' two-year tenure as chief executive officer (CEO) of Howard Brown Health Center has reportedly come to an end. According to numerous sources, the announcement was first made at a staff meeting held at 2:30 p.m on Friday, Aug. 31 and Windy City Times broke the news online shortly after.

HBHC released a press release at 6:42 p.m on August 31 stating that the board "has accepted the resignation of President and CEO Jamal Edwards, who is leaving to pursue other opportunities." Duke Alden, of AON Corporation, will take over as interim board chair. He was not present at the staff meeting and neither, according to several sources, were any other board members.

In a move already garnering much criticism in many quarters, the board has appointed board chair Karma Israelsen as interim president and CEO, but there is no word on how long she will remain and what her salary will be in the meantime. Edwards made $265,000, an amount that has been controversial given his lack of experience in healthcare and that he had no experience in the non-profit world.

There is no word on what opportunities Edwards might be pursuing, no reasons given for his unexpected resignation, and no details on how the decision to replace him with Israelsen was made.

The press release says, with no definite dates, that "[t]he board will announce plans at a later date regarding a search for a new president and CEO."

It is still unclear if Edwards resigned or was dismissed by the board; WCT has heard from several sources that he attempted to rescind his initial resignation but the board, reportedly, decided to accept his resignation, citing the loss of the MACS grant and undue amounts of negative publicity in the past many months.

There were other rumors surrounding his departure and we are attempting to verify these.

In related news that does not appear to be directly linked to the Edwards announcement, Lara Brooks, senior-most staff member at the Broadway Youth Center, a program of HBHC, has resigned. She confirmed the news in an email to WCT: "I will be resigning from Howard Brown Health Center on Sept. 14 and will be joining the Chicago House team in October as project manager of the TransLife Center, an emerging program that will eventually provide housing, drop in services, and employment support to Transgender, Two Spirit, Gender Variant, and Gender Non-Conforming people."

Rumors about Edwards' departure and Brooks' resignation have been swirling in the community for the past two weeks. When asked, repeatedly, about both, HBHC denied the news, saying that it was incorrect.

In the meantime, rumors are also afoot that several other staff members have gone, under circumstances that are still the object of speculation. Among them is Will Raj, vice president and chief administrative officer. Rumors also swirled that two of his subordinates, Jeremy Carr and Jeff Ard, were let go by Edwards before his own departure. The departure of so many members of the technical support staff could mean that the agency has been brought to a standstill, given that data and information management is a crucial part of its business.

When asked about his departure, Raj would neither confirm nor deny the facts to WCT. HBHC denied it outright, saying that the information was "incorrect." There are rumors that Raj has been reinstated, but nothing has been confirmed.

An email sent to Israelsen and other board members, in the wake of initial rumors about Jamal Edwards's departure was responded to by Edwards, who denied he was leaving. Israelsen has consistently not responded to WCT queries and requests for interviews.

A Tumultuous History

This final announcement comes at the end of a period that has been clouded with doubts even as it began with much promise after initial news that the agency was in severe financial crisis. In early 2010, Michael Cook, then CEO, and Mark Joslyn, then chief financial officer, resigned and were let go, respectively, under a cloud of allegations of financial mismanagement. At the time, Edwards was lead counsel pro bono to the board and, to the surprise of many, became the executive director after allegedly having first declared, according to several sources, that he would only be an interim appointment.

In April of this year, HBHC held a press conference to declare that it now had a $1.2 million surplus. Much of that, according to the organization, was due to its pharmacy program and profits from the Brown Elephant, its retail store selling secondhand items.

However, such notable achievements have come at the cost of cutting healthcare for staff at all three Brown Elephant locations, most of whom have been turned into part-time employees in order to save on their healthcare costs. At the same time, Jamal Edwards's salary in 2011 was $265,000. HBHC never responded to our query about how much it actually saved by cutting employee health care.

While Edwards has consistently reported on the positive financial developments at the organization (which will be thoroughly reported upon here in the upcoming weeks) his tenure has been marked by several departures on all levels, nearly 60 by most counts. They included high-level and respected medical experts like Dr. Rob Garofalo, whose work on trans adolescent sexual health is considered groundbreaking. They also included people hand-picked by Edwards, such as Editha Paras, his first chosen chief financial officer and Chuck Benya, his chief development officer who was also made a vice president.

In addition, Edwards's management style appeared hostile and combative, even when he was not faced with direct threats. WCT broke the story of his having sent an email in May 2011 to a yahoo listserv set up for area non-profit CEOs. In it, he wrote, "It's come to my attention that a few of our former employees—and 'former' for very good reasons—may have been seeking employment with some of your agencies. … Many of you know that since I joined HBHC we've had to do a lot of clean up, coming out of a very troubled past. Please feel free to check with me before hiring any senior level person who list[s] HBHC as a former employer or mentions as a reference or other affiliate. Email, call [...], snail mail, is fine. I'll be happy to share what I know. After having a few recently of my own, I'd be happy to help others avoid a bad experience if I can. Hope we can all do that in return."

According to several sources, this only confirmed a general staff-wide concern that Edwards not only bore grudges but would actively work to stand in the way of even former employees. Benya was among those who left before the email was sent out, and thus one of its subjects. He responded that, "[i]t reflects that Jamal Edwards is wasting his resources when he should be focused on the viability of the organization."

News of the email added to the stress of the workplace, according to several sources, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and surveillance. The wording of the email also raised questions about legal and personnel ethics.

In October 2011, Edwards, unhappy with WCT's coverage of its matters, banned the free community paper from its premises. The move was reportedly criticized internally by many staffers and several community members contacted WCT to express surprise and dismay at the banning. In a larger context, Edwards's move raised more concerns about his tendency to make broad and sweeping decisions without considering the possible backlash.

The board, headed by Karma Israelsen, has consistently stood by Edwards in all these developments. In May of this year, Time Out Chicago expanded upon WCT coverage in a piece that could not be read as favorable to the CEO. It drew renewed and possibly unwelcome attention to the organization, this time in a popular and mainstream publication. Here, Israelsen was again quoted giving him effusive praise and insisting that the inordinate number of departures was no cause for concern, "When you have a new CEO, there's always turnover. I wouldn't define it as a lot."

Promotion Amidst Losses

In the midst of so many departures, others at HBHC began rapidly rising up the ranks of HBHC leadership. The executive leadership, comprising of Edwards and a few others, expanded to include Will Raj, who became a vice president and chief administrative officer. Dr. Magda Houlberg joined Howard Brown in 2008 as its Director of Geriatric Medicine and became Chief Clinical Officer in 2011, under Edwards. Most recently, in June, she was again promoted to senior vice president, Health Center Operations and Chief Operating Officer. Where the leadership team formerly consisted of more than a half dozen personnel, they are now only these three.

Of all these and other high-level personnel, only Edwards's salary has been revealed. HBHC has not respond to WCT's requests for disclosure of all salaries and other hiring details, as part of a community-wide survey of non-profit groups.

Dr. Houlberg is also the only full-time physician on staff at HBHC. HBHC has not responded to previous emails asking for quantitative proof that there are others; it also appears, from reports as well as what is visible on the website, that a significant number of caregivers are either interns, volunteers, or part-time staff. The organization now claims a budget of over 12 million.

At the same time, HBHC has faced significant changes in its research and service provider roles. The MACS (Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study) grant has been a pivotal part of HBHC, granting the organization the prestige of a research project given to very few other community health centers. That grant was transferred to Northwestern in the wake of the financial crisis of 2010, with HBHC taking over the role of the subcontractor. But HBHC has had to relinquish even that role, having the grant recently removed from it in order "to protect the MACS participants and to preserve the integrity of the research," according to NU.

At present, the majority of HBHC's research projects appear to be participatory research or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies.

Moving Forward?

Edwards's departure will doubtless cause exultation in many quarters both inside and outside the organization, as indicated by the responses seen by the WCT.

However, in moving forward, there do not appear, so far, to have been any firm structural changes. The board has now undertaken an appointment that looks exactly the same as that of Edwards: Hiring an outsider without any qualifications, with no prior experience and who moves from a pro bono position to one as one of the most highly paid LGBTQ non-profit executives in the city. In addition, it does not appear that the organization has disposed of its old habits of rewarding internal political connections.

Israelsen has consistently evaded being interviewed by WCT. She is from the same for-profit company, Career Education Corporation, as Mark Andrews, the former board chair. Israelsen has worked there as vice president of regulatory operations. At the time of her becoming board chair, she was one of only two board members (the other was Frank L. Buttitta) who had been newly appointed to the board and was thus allowed to stay on.

Asked about a possible conflict of interest in an appointment that seemed to indicate at least some deliberate positioning, barring a fantastic coincidence, Edwards dismissed any concerns in a February 2011 interview with WCT, "... quite frankly, Karma is a vice president and more senior than Mark and the board felt very comfortable there would be no undue influence or inappropriate relationship between the two, that they both served on the board or one served on the board, and I believe that completely. The board has a conflict-of-interest policy and it's fully disclosed that she worked for the same company."

Andrews and the outgoing board were presented with a plaque of recognition for what Edwards explained as their deserving "to be recognized for having put the agency first and agreeing to transition themselves out for the good of the people we serve." In fact, the board had little choice but to do so in the wake of a community-wide furor over what many saw as its lack of oversight.

In that same interview, Edwards discussed how he and Israelsen oversaw the formation of a board formation committee. Ron Nunziato, previously board chair from 1991-1992, was the only one who volunteered for the position as chair of the board formation committee; all the others were people whose investiture as such was overseen by Edwards and Israelsen. They were Lisa Kuhns, Ph.D., Howard Brown staff; Matt Neilson, then current Howard Brown board member; Tom Klein, M.D., physician and partner in Klein, Slotten and French Medical Associates; Leslie Ramyk, executive director, Ravenswood Health Care Foundation; and Alicia Ozier, executive director, Taskforce Prevention Services.

Of these, Ozier was the only one without a direct connection of some sort to HBHC. That would change in February 2012, when she joined as a vice president of operations (a position that was then clarified as "vice president of Community Health Services"; Ozier never returned WCT's calls requesting an interview).

The announcement of Lara Brooks's departure means yet another in a long line of Howard Brown employees, including Garofalo and Joe Hollendoner, who was a founding director of BYC and is now at AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Brooks, who was contacted before the news about Edwards was confirmed, has expressed delight at her new position at the TransLife project, along with an abiding respect for the potential of Broadway Youth Center (WCT will have more details on this next week). The TransLife project would, in years past, have been housed at Howard Brown Health Center.

As this paper has pointed out repeatedly, over the course of its own publishing history and that of Howard Brown, which has been around since 1974, the issues go much deeper than current or former management. Already, there are signs of dismay and outright hostility to the notion of Karma Israelsen, who has no qualifications in the healthcare industry or in the non-profit world, possibly being paid the same high salary as Edwards.

HBHC was once celebrated for being one of the few LGBTQ health centers in the country, but that status has shifted with a changing healthcare industry and the shifting and growing needs of the community it has served. Organizations like HBHC need to consider a population of people with AIDS that is aging and even thriving (albeit with many threatened cuts to AIDS funding), contrary to prior expectations. They also need to consider a newer population of LGBTQ people with needs that demand more than instant or short-term hospice care, and they include youth and transgender populations.

In the end, it is not just that Howard Brown is changing but that the very landscape of LGBTQ healthcare is shifting under its foundations. Over the course of the last few years, HBHC has rapidly isolated itself from the community it was meant to serve and become part of a structure of non-profits that must now recalibrate or fade away. In the meantime, there is not much to indicate that HBHC has fundamentally altered the way it operates, and it has in fact tightened its secrecy and increased its turnover of essential staff and service providers. In the end, while many have sought to paint Edwards as the biggest problem, he and his tenure at the organization may well have been symptoms and indications of greater issues at this troubled organization.

That reality has haunted and will continue to haunt Howard Brown, long after the short if contentious two-year tenure of Jamal Edwards has faded in memory.

Windy City will continue to update this story.

UPDATE: HBHC released a press release at 6:42 p.m on August 31, which reiterated what WCT had already reported on: The board "has accepted the resignation of President and CEO Jamal Edwards, who is leaving to pursue other opportunities." As reported, Karma Israelsen will take over as interim president and CEO, but there is no word on how long she will remain and what her salary will be in the meantime. Duke Alden, of AON Corporation, will take over as interim board chair.

There is no word on what opportunities Edwards might be pursuing, no reasons given for his unexpected resignation, and no details on how the decision to replace him with Israelsen was made.

The press release says, with no definite dates, that "[t]he board will announce plans at a later date regarding a search for a new president and CEO."

Windy City Times will continue to pursue this story and ask for interviews.


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