Aid for AIDS of Nevada, the state's biggest and oldest charity serving AIDS patients, has a lot on its plate right now.
The 25th annual Black & White Party fundraiser is coming up Saturday. The event is the charity's main annual showcase, and the staff is working hard on what amounts to an overhaul of the organization in preparation for changes wrought by federal health care reform.
At the same time, though, the nonprofit's directors are trying to push back against almost a year's worth of accusations and criticism that is starting to make people in the community question how solid an organization AFAN actually is.
"The attacking has to stop," said Jennifer Morss, AFAN's executive director, who has been the focus of most of the criticism.
The main critic is Lane Olson, a former employee who was let go after financial irregularities were uncovered. He was joined by Dr. Jerry Cade, an HIV specialist who helped found AFAN in 1984.
Primarily, Olson alleged that Morss fosters a threatening and bullying work environment in which employees and clients fear losing jobs or services if they are critical. There also were charges of financial mismanagement and human resource abuses.
AFAN and Morss have now sued Olson, alleging his campaign is false and defamatory and is hurting the organization's mission. It's really Olson and his supporters doing the threatening and bullying, Morss and others at AFAN said, to the point that staff are instructed to call the police if he shows up at their building.
Cade did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Olson wanted legal counsel to accompany him at the interview, but arrangements could not be made before deadline.
Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who has been active with AFAN, said she has met with people on both sides of the dispute, "trying to get people to talk about programming and not the, 'He said, she said.' "
"I'm trying to defuse it by not having the issue become the executive director," Giunchigliani said. "It's had some problems. It does start to undermine it, and people may not be as free with their dollars, and that doesn't help.
"Is it starting to taint it? Yes. We need to find a way to put this to rest."
SMOKE, NO FIRE?
When the allegations were first leveled in 2009, AFAN's board of trustees stepped in to investigate, hiring both a law firm specializing in human resources and a forensic auditor. The investigations cost $20,000 and the reports cleared Morss, said Patricia Saavedra, president of the board.
The only financial problems discovered eventually snared Olson.
The investigation found that Olson was turning reimbursement receipts multiple times, they said. It found that he used funds from one grant to raise money for another program, an accounting no-no that could have cost AFAN the entire grant and subjected it to outside scrutiny if not corrected.
Olson was counseled about it several times to no avail, Saavedra said, and the board decided to let him go.
Olson didn't challenge his termination, but he challenged the idea that he was let go for "gross misconduct." He said he was offered "hush money" in the form of a small severance package, which he and attorney Richard Segerblom argued was evidence that he hadn't done anything wrong.
"It is a blatant contradiction to assert that an employee was fired for 'gross misconduct and misappropriation of funds' and at the same time offer them $3,616 in wages," Segerblom wrote in a letter to Morss.
He also said that Olson's alleged deeds were known for months before the termination and that "failure to act" undermines AFAN's position.
At best, Olson was "clearly not paying attention to what he was doing," said Paul Larsen, AFAN's attorney.
"At the end of the day, you have to look your funding sources in the eye and say every dollar is accounted for," he said. "If you can't do that, then you have to separate the employees that are causing the problem."
After he was separated from AFAN, Olson took his campaign public. There were Facebook and letter-writing campaigns. Public officials were contacted. He repeated his allegations of personnel and financial mismanagement, and he and others made calls to oust Morss and to stop donating to AFAN while she remained executive director.
Much of the criticism would look like internal office politics to an outsider. There were recriminations over COBRA benefits for some former employees, complaints of favoritism, accusations and counter-accusations about who was truly being disruptive in the office.
In the midst of this, an annual audit in 2010 discovered theft that had been going on for more than a year. In all, $13,455 was missing, most of it used to illicitly buy gift cards.
AFAN recovered a large chunk of the money and fired the employee, Jared Hafen, who was convicted of theft and must pay back the balance as a condition of his sentence .
Still, the incident raised flags with grant providers, and AFAN got a black eye when the story was leaked to the news media, which Morss alleged was done to further hurt the organization's reputation.
More recently, the critics won a round before county commissioners, who control grant funds that AFAN competes for and who appoint people to the Ryan White Part A Planning Council, a board that awards federal funds for AIDS programs. They recently removed Morss from a nonvoting position on the board because critics said she had a conflict of interest serving on the board while also heading an agency that received funds.
The most bizarre incident, though, occurred in April. Pictures surfaced on Facebook of a former AFAN employee pointing a rifle at the nonprofit's Shadow Lane building. He reportedly was with a group of people filming a movie nearby, but Morss viewed it as a threat, filed a police report and, at AFAN's annual AIDS Walk later that month, she wore a bulletproof vest.
The brouhaha hasn't hurt AFAN's ability to raise money. Private and corporate donations are up, as is grant funding, more clients are being served, and five new employees have been hired.
The nonprofit has made progress in other areas too. A renovated housing complex with room for 20 low-income HIV patients recently opened.
This month, a group called the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, which rates the quality and stability of health service providers, gave AFAN a three-year accreditation, its highest ranking.
"As far as fundraising, it really hasn't" had an impact, Morss said. "More than anything the effect has been on the emotions of our staff."
CLOSE NO MORE
Emotions have run high on both sides. For instance, an email Olson sent late last year said, "The accusations of why they fired me were conjured up by a magic wand of the beloved executive director of AFAN, Jennifer Morss."
After nine years with the agency, Olson said he couldn't understand why he was let go.
"The only conclusion that I can come up with is that she had a vendetta against me, since that day we as AFAN employees decided to stand up and speak the truth of what was and is really going on inside the doors of AFAN," he wrote.
"After the decision to keep Morss as executive director of AFAN, the employees who risked everything lost all hope of this agency really becoming a top working place in Nevada."
Others see it differently.
Morss said the whole mess started in early 2009, when Olson and another employee asked for and were denied promotions. That's when the allegations started that led to the board of trustees' investigation, she and others said. And when the board decided to stand behind Morss, the negative campaign escalated in volume.
"His efforts have continued, and he's enlisted the help of some extraordinary people," said Larsen, the attorney for AFAN. "It's difficult in that the organization continues to have respect for Mr. Olson. It's just the way he's reacted to the separation is so negative."
One of those extraordinary people is Cade, whose work as a doctor and advocate gives his words weight. But he also acknowledged in a letter to the AFAN board that he is relying only on Olson's word.
"Although I cannot personally speak to the veracity of any other claims, I can vouch for Lane Olson's contention that he was unjustly fired as much as anyone who wasn't actually there can vouch," he wrote, saying his long acquaintance with Olson makes the financial charges against him "almost impossible to believe."
He is not the only one who felt that way. Morss and Olson were close friends, and Saavedra said people believed that Olson was making mistakes that the organization couldn't tolerate.
"He was well-liked. I liked him," she said. "That's why I couldn't get over the hurdle that this was theft."
The situation is perhaps best summed up by a recent Facebook post from Truth and Unity: Friends of AFAN.
"Jennifer and Lane were very close for more than nine years," it says. "His expectation was that she would never put the organization before personal feelings. ... You are watching a very public divorce between Lane and Jennifer unfold and all the community are caught in as the children in the middle of the mess."
Right now, AFAN administers several different programs for HIV-positive clients. There is housing and transportation aid, a program that helps low-income individuals obtain medication, and health insurance premium assistance for those who qualify.
In the 2010 fiscal year, it had a $3.3 million budget, 80 percent of which came from government grants.
The organization hopes to greatly expand, and that feeds the contentiousness as well, Morss said, as some people will always be uncomfortable with change.
AFAN and Community Counseling Center of Southern Nevada are considering a merger. AFAN has also applied to be a "federally qualified health center" that would provide medical care to the uninsured. If that happens, its client base of 4,000 people would grow by as many as 8,000 patients, Morss said.
All of that is necessary because of changes stemming from federal health care overhaul, Morss said. The funding it currently relies on for AIDS services is most likely going to be transferred to other accounts, and HIV care will be part of general health care funding, not broken off into special grants.
If it doesn't do this, she said, AFAN probably would cease to exist as an organization.
"We need to do everything we can to ensure the stability of this organization. We have to grow, and we have to meet the environment around us."