Having served on the board for more than 30 years and led it for 14, Cole has helped to raise hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. But his leadership and the amfAR board came under fire last year following an inter-member rift triggered by a questionable deal with the disgraced Harvey Weinstein. The controversy triggered a decline in fund-raising. Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office listed a number of governance issues it wanted the organization to deal with, including board member term limits.
Cole declined to comment Thursday, but amfAR released a statement highlighting some of the changes approved at Wednesday’s board meeting. The statement referenced “a series of reforms that will enable the foundation to continue to operate at the highest standards of governance.” In addition to Cole, the term limits of Donald Capoccia; Vincent Roberti; Mervyn F. Silverman, M.D.; M.P.H., and John Simons have run out and they are exiting as well.
“Recognizing that the recruitment of new trustees is essential to the foundation’s continuing evolution and progress, the board voted unanimously to implement term limits for trustees. The trustees whose terms were expiring at this meeting and who had served longer than the term limits adopted, graciously agreed to rotate off the board after serving the foundation with distinction,” the statement read. “We are very grateful to these five trustees for their years of service on the board, and especially appreciative of our chair, Kenneth Cole, who has served this organization for 30 years with extraordinary dedication. Under his leadership we have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research, had a profound impact on millions of people’s lives, and gotten closer to our ultimate goal of finding a cure for this insidious disease.”
In a letter posted on POZ on Thursday, Jonathan Canno, one of the founding amfAR board members, challenged media reports that made it appear that Cole had stepped down of his own volition. He said one of the new governance changes in the attorney general’s letter was that “Cole had to leave one way or the other at Wednesday’s board meeting.” Canno wrote, “I can tell you a root canal would have been more pleasant than that meeting.”
While Schneiderman’s call for mandated term limits “got rid of some Cole sycophants like [Capoccia] and two others,” Canno wrote that two “absolutely irreplaceable” board members — Silverman and head of fund development Roberti — were also rotated out, he said. Roberti “did a spectacular job and the attorney general never would have known or done anything about Kenneth’s misdeeds and cost to the foundation had it not been for Vin,” Canno wrote.
From his standpoint, most of the remaining eight are “antagonistic” to him and Arlen Andelson, and two of them are “retreads from the past” including one who is 92 (and didn’t attend board meetings when he was 82.)”
Bill Roedy is said to be serving as amfAR’s acting chair.
Capoccia praised Cole Thursday, saying, “The work that Kenneth did over those 14 years as chair was pretty extraordinary. I know there’s been a lot of controversy over the last year, but that can’t possibly trump the good that he has done for the organization for the 14 years before that. I believe that from my core.”
On the board throughout Cole’s chairmanship, Capoccia said he watched him take it from “a very challenged $13 million-a-year organization that was facing a lot of financial issues” to one that is “really the preeminent NGO that is sort of leading the HIV/AIDS agenda today globally. He brought it to a $50 million-a-year organization with approximately $60 million in reserves. It’s an amazing accomplishment for anybody. It’s unfortunate, especially as his tenure is coming to a close, that this is not at all focused on. It seems very unfair to me. It really misses a lot of amfAR’s progress. AmfAR wouldn’t do what it is doing today if it weren’t for Kenneth and his dogged determination to get to a cure.”
Capoccia said the new voting trustees — Aileen Getty, Harry Belafonte, Alan Schwartz and Mario Stevenson — “will help this existing board, expand it and get them realigned, moving once again in a positive direction. I have to say each one of these four came personally from Kenneth. Kenneth recruited them, got them to agree to come on for a three-year term. They all know it’s a challenge, but they are happy to take on challenges.”
As for potential successors, Capoccia said, “There are so many good people that could get the organization to where we are today to a cure in a couple of years. I have no doubt that the board will identify the perfect candidate, bring them in and they’ll continue Dr. Krim’s [amfAR’s founding chairman Mathilde Krim] and Kenneth’s legacy.”
In his posted letter, Canno said he skipped Wednesday’s amfAR gala in protest. “This year, the staff, as always, did a great job of getting new sponsors and filling the room, mostly with non-paying people, which is in the Kenneth Cole tradition of not paying for his tables. But you can’t have an empty room and this year with the scandal and the room and new sponsors committed there was no other choice. That was never done before,” Canno wrote.
He noted how “the staff is still loyal to wonderful [amfAR chief executive officer] Kevin Frost,” who should have been brought on board even without a board vote. That motion was narrowly defeated, he said. Canno, whose own term runs out next February, said Getty was the only new board member he would heartily support (having met her many years ago through Elizabeth Taylor). Should Cindy Rachofsky be elected chair, Canno said he will probably stay on. Canno also criticized the attorney general for taking “so long to act (the day before the meeting and two-and-a-half years after we called it to their attention) and acted so p–s poorly in their recommendations — that irreparable damage has been done to the amfAR brand and ability to pull it back to its former purity of purpose and reputation.”
Last year four dissident board members — Canno, Andelson, Roberti and Silverman — shared their concern with Schneiderman’s office about the $600,000 transfer to “a recipient outside the organization despite the clear objections of the executive management team and without the knowledge of the entire voting members of the board. The upheaval stemmed from amfAR agreeing with Weinstein to split proceeds from a 2015 Cannes benefit auction with the American Repertory Theater in Boston.
In a statement released by a spokeswoman on behalf of Weinstein, he voiced support for Cole’s tenure and pure zeal for the ART deal. “Kenneth Cole did an exceptional job and worked extremely hard from day one to support amfAR’s mission and Mr. Weinstein hopes the team finds someone just as good or better, if that is even possible, to replace him.”
The statement continued, “Between the $600,000 that ART received for the package and the $1.3 million that amfAR received, when all was said and done, this transaction was one of the greatest deals in charitable history. Overshadowed by politics, when you do the math, it’s a spectacular victory and Mr. Weinstein hopes that in the future, all charities should be so lucky to host events that raise as much as that one deal.”
Sean Strub, executive director of The Sero Project, a national network of people living with HIV, was part of a 60-person group of people who called for Cole’s resignation or removal in the fall. He said Thursday, “It was a good day for AIDS cure research and a good day for people living with HIV, but we will see how this plays out over the long term. Serious challenges for the board remain, particularly in terms of its composition,” adding that one-third should be people living with HIV and the board needs to be “significantly more diverse, more transparent and more accountable to the communities they purport to serve. The search committee for a new board chair should similarly be representative of the community.”
As the recipient of amfAR’s largest 2016 grant, $20 million over five years, pioneering AIDS physician Paul Volberding said Thursday, “AmfAR has been such a crucial resource especially for work in finding an HIV cure that we hope that leadership can be found quickly and the momentum of philanthropic support can continue without interruption. The foundation has, through its many friends in the world of fashion and entertainment, done much to help reduce the stigma that has been so pervasive and detrimental. We hope those friends stay firm in their involvement with amfAR as new leaders are identified.”