While rumors swirl and community leaders demand an explanation, the board of Chicago’s Howard Brown Health Center continues to stonewall questions about the abrupt departure of its CEO and chief financial officer.
The board confirmed April 9 that CEO Michael Cook had resigned and CFO Mark Joslyn had been terminated. In a press release, HBHC said it was working with its lawyers to address the situation, but refused to supply details, calling the matter an “administrative decision.”
That didn’t sit well with many LGBT leaders in Chicago, who said the Midwest’s largest LGBT health center owes answers to its clients and supporters.
“Howard Brown is a community health center and the community has a right to know what’s going on,” said Rick Garcia, director of public policy at Equality Illinois. He called Howard Brown “our own little Vatican.”
State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, agreed. “I do not think it’s in their best interest to not be forthcoming,” he said. “All this uncertainty and secrecy is not helpful to them. The rumor mill is running wild and the rumors might be worse than what the facts will tell.”
While Howard Brown has remained tight-lipped about the situation, community insiders say it stems from the loss of a major federal grant – the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS). That program, which has collected and studied blood from more than 5,000 HIV-infected men since 1984, has made significant contributions to the science and treatment of HIV.
“I first became aware of major problems at Howard Brown when I was told …that the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Center grant to Howard Brown was being transferred on an emergency basis to Northwestern University,” said the agency’s co-founder Dr. David Ostrow in an open letter to HBHC board members and supporters. He went on to demand transparency concerning the problems leading to the transfer.
Northwestern is one of four universities involved in the study, which is administered by the National Institutes of Health. But as the primary contractor in Chicago, Howard Brown had earned about $1 million annually in fees for managing the grant, which also involves Chicago’s Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center.
Now Northwestern is receiving the administrative fees, although Howard Brown and the CORE Center will continue to receive funding to provide client services.
While Ostrow said he doesn’t know what led Cook to transfer the grant, he said the former CEO would not have been able to do it without good reason. “He would have had to explain the reasons to the National Institutes of Health, and they would have had to approve the transfer to Northwestern,” Ostrow said. “You have to assume that he did it to protect the grant. Something was amiss, even though Howard Brown had been handling this grant for 26 years.”
This is not the first time Howard Brown has been engulfed in turmoil. Ironically, Cook was named president and CEO in October 2005 after executive director Keith Waterbrook resigned on the heels of a major drug scandal. Many community leaders credit Cook with restoring the agency’s reputation – as well as its bottom line.
“Michael Cook came in and turned that organization around,” Garcia said. “He brought a great team together and has done a great job.”
Ostrow agreed. “This has been the golden age of Howard Brown with Michael Cook,” he said. “It’s been well run and the programs have doubled in size. So for them to have this idea that a transfer would take place and nobody would find out about it – it’s naïve thinking. When a successful leader suddenly leaves, everybody jumps to the conclusion that there’s something rotten in Denmark.”
Board member Rocco Claps was among those who refused to comment on rumors that the grant was transferred to Northwestern due to mismanagement at Howard Brown. “I’m not prepared to talk ... about what’s been going on,” he said. “There are a number of things the board and management have had to deal with.”
“They should hold a community forum and lay out exactly what’s going on and take questions from community leaders,” Ostrow said. “They need to get beyond this, otherwise it’s like a kind of cancer that spreads.”
However, Ostrow has a theory about why the two men left: “It’s politics,” he said. “Some things never change in this community.”