Allegations fly after Equality PA board member booted

Statewide LGBT-rights organization Equality Pennsylvania last week sought legal intervention after a board member it recently removed shared financial information about the organization online.

Board removal

The boards of Equality PA and the Equality PA Education Fund voted Sept. 14 to revoke Sharron Cooks’ board membership and her position as vice president of advocacy, according to social-media posts by Cooks. Managing Director and Acting Chief Professional Officer John Dawe confirmed to PGN this week that Cooks was voted off the board.

A Sept. 15 letter Cooks posted online — which she said she received from law firm Ballard Spahr, which represents Equality PA — instructed her that her board membership was terminated after she “published a Facebook status and published a video in which you disparaged two of Equality PA’s partners, including the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Trans Health Conference; your subsequent failure to respond to messages from the board co-chairs and treasurer regarding the disparaging comments; and your refusal to participate in a recent executive committee.”

In a series of social-media postings starting later that day, Cooks, a black trans woman, contended she was forced off the board because of white supremacy. Cooks did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, she was voted out as chair of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs. A representative for the city cited Cooks’ social-media postings and “unwelcoming” treatment of other board members as the reason.

Following news of her removal from Equality PA’s board, Cooks posted on social media a number of allegations about the organization’s financial health, contending it’s “bankrupted,” as well as alleging leadership mismanagement. She shared a number of screenshots of emails and other correspondence among Equality PA leadership and board members.

According to the Ballard Spahr letter Cooks posted, the organization ordered her to cease and desist publishing confidential information about the agency. The letter instructed Cooks she was in breach of her Equality PA Confidentiality Agreement “in several respects” and was “potentially committing acts in violation of both federal and state civil and criminal law.”

The letter demanded Cooks refrain from disseminating information about the agency, as well as “cease disparaging and defaming Equality PA by spreading false and malicious statements regarding the management of Equality PA.” The letter also ordered her to return to the agency all property of Equality PA, including any confidential and financial information.

Failure to comply, according to the letter, would result in Equality PA seeking “all appropriate relief, including monetary damages and injunctive relief.”

Cooks has since deleted several posts.

Dawe declined to comment on future legal action but said, “All board members are made aware of their duties and responsibilities, including those of the confidentiality agreement and duty to represent the organization.”

Financial allegations

In a post Sept. 15, Cooks wrote, “Because I refused to give my image and story for free to the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who EQPA borrowed $15,000 from, they voted me off the board.”

“[The ACLU] certainly did not make a request through the organization to ask her to do anything,” Dawe told PGN.

Cooks also contended that funder Gill Foundation “has withdrawn all financial support” for the organization, and that the agency owes “back taxes.” Dawe told PGN this was “an unfounded statement.”

“After she made it, I confirmed with the Gill Foundation and it was not an accurate statement,” Dawe said.

A representative of Gill Foundation told PGN Wednesday that it is a current funder of Equality PA Education Fund.

One email seemingly sent from Dawe that Cooks labeled as Equality PA’s debts contained a list of individuals and agencies, with monetary values next to their names, totaling about $188,000. Another email, which started with the disclaimer that it was “confidential under the Equality PA Board Confidentiality Policy,” stated that “it has become increasingly clear that stability is not in our near future.” It detailed there was $2,500 available in cash and that the next $4,000 payroll was to be paid out from the “last amount available” in the agency’s line of credit. The email also stated that Development Director Joe Dungee was to be laid off and that the organization will “likely lose [a second staff member] as well due to the inability to pay past debts to them and following the recent HR situations between them and a former supervisory relationship.”

This particular email has since been deleted from Cooks’ social media.

In an email to partners, Dawe addressed the claims about Dungee and the second staff member.

“Like most small businesses and nonprofit organizations, Equality Pennsylvania has experienced its share of cash-flow issues, resulting in the smart and strategic decision to furlough some full-time members of its staff during the slowest months of the year to part-time status,” he wrote. “Limited staffing during the July/August period was announced publicly through our digital media channels.”

“Circumstances change in nonprofits all the time. I reconsidered that position,” Dawe told PGN about the development-director position. He said both are currently employed with the organization.

He added Cooks’ financial claims are “no longer accurate.”

The most recent Form 990 tax filing, from 2015, for Equality PA Education Fund, the organization’s 501(c)(3) wing, reported revenue of $1.08 million and expenses of $1.2 million. It had a balance of $509,023 at the beginning of the year, leaving it with net assets of $381,807.

The 2015 filings of the 501(c)(4) Equality PA showed assets at that time of $64,735. The organization reported $112,154 in revenue and $116,882 in expenses.

Information about the last fiscal year for both branches of the organization was not yet publicly available.

Personnel allegations

Cooks also made several allegations about personnel.

Former executive director Ted Martin stepped down in June, telling PGN at the time that the organization was ready for “new vision” and “new leadership.” Cooks alleged that “Equality Pennsylvania had to fire the entire staff because of mismanagement of fund [sic] by Ted Martin.” Additionally, she contended Martin was fired due to “misappropriating grant funds.”

In an email to partners, Dawe said the certified public accounting firm of Ruotolo, Spewak, & Co. audits the organization annually. “These audits show no matters of interest, going concerns or any issues that might suggest misappropriation or mismanagement of funds,” Dawe wrote.

Additionally, he wrote that Martin “stepped down” from the position.

“Ted timed this strategically to coincide with both the end of the organization’s fiscal year, and the summer recess of the Pennsylvania legislature, giving Equality Pennsylvania plenty of notice and helping with a transition plan,” Dawe wrote. “Ted worked with the Equality Pennsylvania board to come to a mutual separation agreement and continues to advocate on behalf of the organization, even following his departure.”

Martin did not respond to a request for comment.

The departure of former board president Joanne Carroll was also raised in Cooks’ social-media commentary. Cooks posted a screenshot of an email from board Vice President Tricia Dougherty supposedly sent to Carroll. Dougherty wrote that the Education Fund executive committee  “received a complaint from [a staff member], an employee of the organization, regarding a violation of the organization’s Anti-Harrassment [sic] policy. The complaint names you as an involved party.” The email continued that Carroll should have no contact “personally or professionally” with the staff member during a 45-day investigation.

Carroll wrote on social media that she left the board because of health reasons.

Both Carroll and Dawe declined to comment on these claims.

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