Board of Baltimore-Based AIDS Group Hires Lawyer To Review Staff Compensation Policies; Other Investigations Ongoing
Board members of the Baltimore-based AIDS education and service group Health Education Resource Organization on Wednesday said that the group has hired a lawyer to review their policies -- including staff compensation -- after allegations that the group's executive director misused the organization's funds to hire a personal trainer and give himself thousands of dollars in bonuses, the Baltimore Sun reports (Shatzkin, Baltimore Sun, 4/1). HERO's board of directors last week launched an investigation into HERO Executive Director Dr. Leonardo Ortega's conduct. HERO Deputy Director Indira Kotval, who was fired after outlining to the board her concerns about Ortega, in a recent report wrote that she had been concerned about Ortega's frequent absences over the past six months. When Ortega's assistant quit and outlined her own concerns about him, Kotval examined organization records and discovered that Ortega had paid a personal trainer with funds from the organization and listed the expenses under the heading "community relations." He also had awarded himself multiple bonuses of up to $3,000 each between November 2003 and January 2004, when the organization was having financial difficulties. Kotval said she also saw checks for $500 to $650 in per diem charges for food and travel, some of which were written during times when Ortega was not on business for HERO. Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson has asked FBI to investigate, and the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations has begun a review of HERO. HERO received MANO's "seal of approval" three years ago for "complying with standards of accountability and governance" (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 3/29). HERO Board President Carlton Smith on Wednesday also said that the board will ask the organization's external auditor to review the group's books, according to the Sun.
The board said in a statement, "We firmly believe that the current situation and the questions raised about the organization's corporate governance and compensation policies and practices warrant immediate and decisive action," adding, "This is a matter of taking responsibility for the organization's actions. This is a matter of disclosure and openness that is required of every organization that depends on the public's confidence. ... HERO's board is intent on responding swiftly and we believe effectively." Although some board members had called for Ortega to step down as head of the organization during investigations, the board said in the statement that Ortega will not resign, the Sun reports. The board said it has "determined any staff or executive changes at this time would be disruptive and could impede the assessment and evaluation process" (Baltimore Sun, 4/1).