Metrolina AIDS Project comes to an end

Updated: Organization's board offers no in-depth comment; other local groups prepare for influx of clients

by Matt Comer  Editor
Published: October 31, 2009 in Cover Stories

Originally Published: Oct. 22, 2009, 6:02 p.m.
Updated: Oct. 31, 2009, 2:00 a.m.

After almost 25 years of service to the greater Charlotte-metro area, a local AIDS service organization has made the decision to close shop in the midst of internal problems, staff resignations, dwindling resources and claims of financial mismanagement.

Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP), originally founded by six gay men in 1985, has faced a tumultuous two years. Q-Notes first reported on some financial problems in February 2008 and again in January and February this year.

On Oct. 22, the MAP board of directors made the decision to close the organization, according to a press release issued on Oct. 23. As of press time, the organization had not decided on an exact date for the group’s closure.

The board said the decision to close came “after it could not find a viable way to continue operating the agency in light of the current economic environment and other internal challenges.”

Credentials questioned
The decision to fold came less than a week after the board announced to staff that executive director Dr. Jose R. Hennessey Diaz had been placed on temporary suspension pending an investigation into “reports on matters of significance,” according to an Oct. 19 email from board chair Shawn McMaster obtained by Q-Notes on Oct. 21.

At the request of the board, Diaz resigned his position with MAP on Oct. 23, according to the release.

It is not clear why Diaz was first suspended or why the board later asked him to resign. Diaz has been unwilling to speak about the specifics which led up to the suspension and resignation. Contacted by Q-Notes on Oct. 22, McMaster declined to comment on Diaz’s suspension and other internal issues.

“Metrolina AIDS Project considers internal personnel matters and operations confidential,” McMaster said. “We do not provide comments to the press on such matters.”

Despite the official silence, questions regarding Diaz’s medical credentials have circulated among LGBT community members for months.

In a curriculum vitae (C.V.) obtained by Q-Notes earlier this year, Diaz claimed to have received medical licenses from the New York and California medical boards in 1994 and 2000.

Several searches of the California and New York medical board databases by Q-Notes staff and medical board officials showed no results for Diaz.

Candis Cohen, public information officer at the California Medical Board, told Q-Notes she could find no record of Diaz under that name and spelling or under the name and spelling of Hennessey.

When contacted by Q-Notes, Diaz was uncomfortable speaking on internal matters at MAP. He did, however, address the rumors regarding his licensing.

Diaz said he never intended to mislead anyone by listing the California and New York medical licenses on his C.V.

“It’s not there to deceive anyone,” he said. “Anyone can go on the [board] website to find out. Since 1990, anyone can go in and put in my name and information and it will not pop up.”

Diaz said he worked under provisional medical licenses while overseeing research studies with Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center in New York and the University of California-San Francisco.

“You cannot become licensed until you have completed a full residency and passed level one and two of your boards and level three,” he said. “I didn’t go through that process. I came here as a foreign medical graduate.”

While in Charlotte, Diaz said practicing medicine was not a part of his duties.

“My role at MAP was not to be a doctor,” he said. “it was to be the executive director and to bring the organization up to quality. I had a whole team of doctors who did medical stuff.”

According to his C.V., Diaz received his M.D. from the University of Buenos Aires in 1990. He worked at several hospitals in Argentina through the 1990s and several in the U.S. from the mid-1990s to the present. He has also served in several teaching positions at several schools of medicine. When he moved to Charlotte, Diaz was working as a consultant with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration.

Unethical practices
Over the past six months, as many as a dozen or more MAP staff have either resigned their positions with the group or been laid off, according to Oltz and a second source who wished to remain anonymous for the purposes of a news story.

Oltz, a former MAP board member and president, had been working as associate director before the initial shake-up in early 2009. He was subsequently laid off but rehired three days later to work on accounting as an assistant to current CFO Beatrice Black. [Ed. Note — Black seems to use both that name and a last name of Simpkins. For the purposes of this article, Q-Notes will use her name as it was listed on MAP’s website.]

Oltz resigned from his position on Oct. 14.

“I cannot in good conscience continue working in this politically charged atmosphere and condone practices which I feel are unethical,” Oltz wrote in an email to MAP’s staff and board, and obtained by Q-Notes on Oct. 21.

Oltz said that arguments and disagreements between Diaz, Black and McMaster made the working environment uncomfortable. He thought several instances of “mismanagement of donor dollars” were unethical.

“The agency had gone from a $3.2 million budget to a $1.6 million budget but [Diaz]’s salary is up to $96,000, Beatrice Black’s is $85,000 and a third person who is over client services, hers is at $88,000,” he said. “Three people making those salaries at such a small organization is like a Gloria Pace King-United Way scenario.”

Diaz told Q-Notes his salary was $91,000.

MAP: A tumultuous history

MAP has served thousands of Charlotte-area patients with HIV. Despite their legacy of good work, the organization also has a history riddled with internal struggles, financial difficulties and an uneasiness with public LGBT-affirmation.

Fall 1985 — During the height of the AIDS crisis, six gay men make the decision to form an AIDS service organization to meet the needs of Charlotte area individuals contracting HIV.

July 16, 1986 — MAP’s articles of incorporation are filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State.

Aug. 1990 — Chaired by MAP board president Sister Mary Thomas Burke, the organization’s “Program Review Panel” rejects a gay-themed HIV prevention and condom-use advertisement. Depicting two young men draped in an American flag, a federal judge involved in a lawsuit over other local “Program Review Panels” said it was “difficult to explain” why MAP rejected the seemingly innocent ad.

July 8, 1991 — MAP’s board of directors votes no confidence in openly gay executive director John Conley and asks him to resign after he publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation at an AIDS Quilt exhibit in Charlotte. In a later interview with Q-Notes, Conley claims he was told not to use the word “gay” in a MAP newsletter. Following Conley’s ouster, three MAP staffers and four volunteers also leave the organization.

1993 — A routine United Way review and audit reveal serious internal problems and financial difficulties for MAP, including deficiencies in policy and procedure, inadequate documentation and record-keeping of Ryan White CARE Act-funded programs and services and inappropriate coordinate of care. At the time, funding from the Regional HIV/AIDS Consortium is put on hold.

Dec. 1993 — MAP treasurer Stephen O’Shields is arrested and charged with embezzling nearly $118,000 from the organization.

Sept. 1994 — Stephen O’Shields is sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to repay the money he embezzled from MAP.

Oct. 1996 — Infighting and disagreements among staff result in the resignation of MAP Executive director Barbara Rein and the termination or resignation of a half-dozen other employees including three department directors.

Feb. 2008 — Carolina Celebration, a primarily gay men’s philanthropic organization, announces it will quit contributing to MAP amidst concerns the AIDS organization is mismanaging funds and moving away from serving the gay community. Carolina Celebration had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to MAP each year.

Jan. 2009 — MAP comes close to closure when it is revealed the organization’s Ryan White CARE Act funding is put on hold pending “a routine review.” MAP officials say the funding hold stemmed partly from organizational problems surrounding the opening of MAP’s Metrolina Care Network Clinic and a failure to get approval for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

August 2009 — MAP announces that Dr. Jose Diaz will become executive director and that the Health Resources and Services Administration has approved a recovery plan for the organization, which will aim to restructure the group’s service delivery toward a clinical care approach.

Fall 2009 — Disagreements among staff and financial problems lead to staff resignations, lay offs and the decision to shutter MAP’s doors.

According to MAP’s 2007-2008 IRS 990 returns, former executive director Ann White was paid a yearly salary of $78,000 with an additional $4,605 in benefits. During his employment as associate director, Oltz was paid a salary of $67,492 with benefits totaling $5,091. Two other staff members made salaries of $61,758 and $54,080; both had benefits totaling $4,605.

The same IRS returns showed the organization had a total revenue of $2.3 million. Their expenses totaled $2.6 million with a $259,906 deficit.

Other anonymous reports claimed MAP was paying housing costs for both Diaz and Black. Oltz said those costs totaled $3,000 per month, but Diaz claimed the housing costs were only $2,300 and part of his and Black’s contract with the organization.

Further, Oltz said he noticed personal expenses being charged to MAP credit cards, confirming anonymous reports that both Diaz and Black had used MAP credit cards for non-business expenses.

Again, Diaz said the non-business expenses were part of his and Black’s contract. Diaz claimed he was only working 80 percent of full time and was allowed travel expenses to return to his home in New York.

Debt and grants
Unconfirmed reports from two anonymous source indicated that MAP had difficulties meeting payroll each pay period and was working under a heavy debt as high as $500,000.

Oltz confirmed the group had been operating under some debt. “I haven’t seen the reports since I left there, but [the debt] is lower than that. The last time I saw the reports, though, the organization had a negative net worth of $400,000.”

The same source told Q-Notes that some grant monies might have been put on hold. Tara Balsley, of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s communications office, said her agency had increased their oversight of federal Ryan White grant funds going to the organization.

“We have imposed a ‘restricted draw down’ on grant funds, this means that HRSA staff review all invoices before payments can be made to local providers,” Balsley wrote in an email to Q-Notes before learning of MAP’s decision to close. “HRSA staff has been providing advice and expertise to the grantee to ensure that essential HIV/AIDS services are in place.”

At press time for the Oct. 31 print issue, Balsley was unavailable for further comment on MAP’s closure. She released a statement from HRSA on Oct. 26: “The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is committed to ensuring that the people served by Metrolina AIDS Project, Inc. have a seamless transition in their HIV/AIDS care and treatment. HRSA is working with MAP to ensure an orderly closure and transition for clients over the next few weeks, and will work with Mecklenburg Health Dept and other community providers to meet the needs of clients. HRSA is working with other eligible entities in an expedited manner to explore a final transfer of the grant.”

United Way assisting with transition
The United Way of Central Carolinas is assisting MAP with their transition, according to United Way Vice President of Community Building Chris Jackson.

“It is early to say exactly what will happen [with MAP],” Jackson said. “We’ve been in touch with their board, obviously, working with them on their transition plan. We’re focusing on trying to help as much as we can with the clients they are currently serving to see if there are other organizations who can support those clients.”

Annual contributions from the United Way totaled as much as nine percent of MAP’s annual budget but was reduced significantly this year. Jackson said his agency would take a look at the appropriated money and allocate those funds to other United Way agencies that are serving individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

In February, the United Way of Central Carolinas board of directors had voted to place MAP on a probationary status. Since that time, MAP had been providing regular updates on their sustainability to the agency.

Jackson said MAP officials had kept the United Way abreast of Diaz’s suspension and other issues throughout the group’s latest ordeal.

Community impact
Once serving as many as 1,400 people per year, MAP’s demise will leave a remarkable void in HIV/AIDS care and case management in the Charlotte area.

Oltz, who’s been involved with MAP in some fashion for over 10 years, said he wished the group could have found a way to stay open.

“I had hoped the board would come to the conclusion to change management and maybe change the board and start fresh, continuing to serve the clients they’ve served all these years,” he said. “I’m saddened to hear about the closing, but maybe it is time.”

John Paul Womble, interim executive director of Raleigh’s Alliance of AIDS Services, told Q-Notes his organization would help former MAP clients as much as they could.

“Sincerely hope that all people living with HIV in MAP’s service area have access to services at other locations,” Womble said. “If we at the Alliance of AIDS Services can be of any assistance they are welcome to call us and we will help them find services.”

Womble, an advocate for HIV/AIDS management and treatment programs for years, said he understood MAP’s decision to close, yet the action would come as a community and a personal loss.

“I find it saddening and it breaks my heart to see that happen after the hard work leaders in the community such as Les Kooyman and countless others did to build a stable organization for those living with HIV/AIDS,” he said.

Rev. Debbie Warren, executive director of Charlotte’s Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), echoed Womble’s sentiments.

“This is a big loss for the community and folks are going to be grieving that,” Warren, an ordained Baptist minister, said. “I think it is a sad time for a lot of the staff who have worked so diligently through the years, certainly for the folks who founded the organization and particularly for the consumers who I think some are going to be very vulnerable after this.”

Warren said she and her staff would be meeting to discuss strategy and preparation for taking on new clients and extending RAIN’s services.

“We’d certainly not like to see any big gaps,” she said. Warren said she’d expressed to Mecklenburg County Health Department officials her organization’s “willingness to work with the health department and the HIV/AIDS staff members over there in any way that is needed to help respond to the consumers who are going to be needing to move their services over to RAIN or to the health department or to another organization in town.”

Warren said her organization had been preparing for increased community needs for at least two years.

“We’ve been increasing our case management staff,” she said. “We have an R.N. on staff now. We are working with First United Methodist Church to open a primary care clinic in early 2010.”

She said if funds became available, RAIN would hope to fill the void left by MAP’s closure, as well as serving clients’ emotional and spiritual needs.

“If we can’t find the funding, we are certainly going to prioritize to deliver the most compelling services that folks are calling for,” Warren said. “I suspect that is going to be case management, support groups and for us, chaplaincy care and emotional support.”