HERO directors look at allegations against director

Board fails to reach conclusion on accusation of fiscal mismanagement

March 23, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Board members of a Baltimore-based HIV and AIDS education group met last night to discuss allegations that the organization's longtime executive director gave himself unauthorized bonuses and used charity funds to pay for a personal trainer, travel and restaurant meals.

But after four hours behind closed doors, board members of HERO - Health Education Resource Organization - failed to reach a conclusion, said its development director, Roderick G. Clark.

The board is still entrenched in a fact-finding mission, including a review of agency finances, Clark said, although he did not know when the board would meet again.

The emergency meeting occurred after allegations by Indira Kotval, deputy to HERO executive director Dr. Leonardo R. Ortega, of fiscal mismanagement.

Accuser fired

Kotval, who went to HERO's office on her day off to review fiscal ledgers, was fired three days after delivering a five-page report outlining her concerns to the board. She has declined to comment publicly on her report or termination.

Ortega, who attended yesterday's meeting briefly until the board went into executive session, said he had been advised not to discuss the allegations.

He defended his tenure as executive director, a job he has held for 11 years. "We came from nothing to something," he said of HERO'S evolution into a multifaceted facility providing medical, counseling and other services for as many as 3,500 HIV and AIDS clients.

In 2002, the last year for which records are available, HERO reported revenues and expenses of about $4.1 million.

Ortega said he didn't believe the board would fire him, adding that he expected to be at work today "the same as every day."

Employees worried

For the first time yesterday, HERO employees went public with some of their concerns, including potential budget cuts and staff reductions.

Staff members said they worried that allegations of fiscal mismanagement could hurt the agency's reputation and handicap its mission to reach out to city residents with HIV and AIDS.

"I sincerely hope that the board of directors will conclude a thorough investigation as quickly as possible," said program manager Kathe Horton in a letter she handed to board members last night. "We need to get on with our mission trusting that HERO and its resources are in the hands of watchful stewards."

Horton's letter and others were given to board members as part of a packet that included a list of questions, many of them regarding Ortega's contract: "Is Dr. Ortega allowed bonuses under the terms of the contract?" "How many days of vacation per year is he allowed?" "What are Dr. Ortega's benefits under his contract? Did these benefits increase recently?"

Staff criticism

Staff members - who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs - said they do not support Ortega. They said that this is not the first time they have questioned his spending practices. Some called Ortega an abrasive micromanager. They said he does not allow program managers to make their own decisions, even those as basic as office assignments.

Employees also questioned Ortega's decision to use agency money to help a group serving Hispanics in the Baltimore region. Ortega is president of that group's board. In their letter, workers asked HERO board members if they had authorized the money transfers. They said they did not understand the relationship between the groups.

Some staff members said they worried that the allegations against their boss could jeopardize an important fund-raising event Friday. A "Wizard of Oz" spring auction has been in the works for months, said Tina Lazar, a development assistant. "I'm concerned," she said. "We usually raise close to $30,000. It's the [fund-raising] kickoff to our annual AIDS walk."

Clark, the development director, said he took calls from several regular donors and sponsors yesterday who asked, "What's the deal?" He said that the atmosphere at HERO offices recently has been tense and that many staff members are feeling distracted.

"It's been difficult," he said. "We haven't been able to focus as much on what we should be doing, which is serving 3,500 clients."

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