By Mathew Katz, DNA Info
CHELSEA — The head of the city's largest AIDS service organization was forced out by the board of directors after she angered clients and staff, DNAinfo New York has learned.
Gay Men's Health Crisis announced Monday that CEO Marjorie Hill would leave the organization after seven years at the helm, describing the move as a mutual decision between Hill and the board.
But sources within the organization said GMHC chairman Mickey Rolfe and the board ousted Hill amid accusations that she had harmed the decades-old organization by costing it millions of dollars in grants, losing dozens of talented staffers through layoffs and using an acidic management style.
"We couldn't keep a CEO there who had such a contemptuous relationship to staff and clients," said one insider, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Hill did not respond to requests for comment.
The executive's problems at GMHC, which provides health and social services to HIV-positive people and organizes the city's annual AIDS Walk, began to come to a head in July, when staff learned Hill would take a paid three-month sabbatical — just one week after many staffers had their salaries slashed, sources said.
Hill, who was paid more than $230,000 in 2012, according to tax documents, departed as staffers were seething about the news their salaries would be cut and their annual health care costs would rise by $1,000, sources said.
As a consolation, staff members were told they would get free tickets to "Let it Be," a Broadway tribute to the Beatles.
"That was the last straw," one employee said. "That money to pay her, when she was useless to us on a sabbatical, it should have gone to help restore our pay."
In early September, a group of concerned staffers and former employees sent Rolfe a letter saying they had "lost confidence in the leadership of Marjorie Hill" and GMHC's chief operating officer Janet Weinberg, sources said. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by DNAinfo New York, demanded that both of the women resign.
Weinberg has since been tapped to take over the organization while the board searches for a replacement, GHMC said.
The letter also slammed the organization's much-heralded new offices on West 33rd Street, where GMHC moved from West 24th Street in 2011. The space, which is significantly larger than the former office, is filled with empty cubicles, enraging critics.
"If we were to cut this space my half, we could save millions annually," the letter said. "We believe that Hill/Weinberg [have] squandered millions on wasteful and unnecessary space and must be held accountable."
GMHC was accused of doling out free office space in the new venue, in what critics called a "sweetheart deal" with MZA Events, a private company that organizes and profits from AIDS Walk.
The new office came under fire from a group of clients earlier this year because of a separate entrance that HIV-positive people were forced to use if they wanted to access GMHC services. Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel picked up the cause of the clients, calling the entrance "troubling."
In a statement, Rolfe said that Hill had "a great run with us" and "left a significant mark on GMHC's evolution." He added that the board's focus is on the future.
"The graciousness of our staff, even in the admittedly disappointing face of funding cuts on the public and personal levels, refreshes our energy and catalyzes each one of us to give 110 percent of ourselves to fighting the good fight," Rolfe said. "I don't mind saying we're proud of our GMHC, and we deserve to be."
The letter to Rolfe from current and former workers also accused Hill and Weinberg of artificially inflating the number of clients GMHC serves by counting people more than once if they receive more than one service, for example getting an HIV test and also getting a free meal.
Those counts allowed GMHC to claim in fundraising documents that it serves 10,000 people a year, the letter said.
"As staff representing practically every unit of GMHC, we estimate that GMHC serves in any meaningful way between 1,000 and 2,000 clients annually," the letter said. "This represents around 1 percent of everyone with HIV in New York City."
In addition, the letter's authors warned that the cash-strapped GMHC lost out on major substance abuse, HIV prevention and youth contracts, the letter said, which could have generated nearly $10 million in funding.
Some clients, staff members and insiders painted Hill as an effective fundraiser with high-profile friends, but said she struggled to run the organization and deal with its longtime base of clients.
"She was very hard to deal with," said Myron Gold, 72, a 20-year client of GMHC and member of its Consumer Advisory Board, which is made up of GMHC clients.
"Her treatment of the clients here, at least for me, it wasn’t up to par — she wanted to run the thing, but she didn’t want the input from us."
The letter from staffers and former employees provided a list of names of dozens of ex-employees who it said quit the organization "in total despair and frustration" — including the entirety of two departments, Health Informatics and Institutional Giving.
Staff members were laid off, and vacant positions were not being filled due to a lack of funding, sources said.
One of the former employees named in the letter denied the characterization of his departure, saying he left his role as GMHC's director of public policy because a better career opportunity presented itself.
"I had a very rewarding experience with the leadership," said Nathan Schaefer, who is now the executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda.
"I think Marjorie is a great leader and she showed tremendous vision for the HIV community and the movement," Schaefer said. "I've long admired her."