In 2017 Tony Plakas won an international award from the Harvey Milk Foundation and celebrated 20 years with Compass, the community center he helped build. He also had to be resuscitated after having a seizure in February. These were the highs and lows of Plakas’ final year at an organization he has been credited with saving, not once, but twice from certain failure.
SFGN recently sat down for an hours-long interview over a wedge salad with Plakas at Howley’s, a popular hang out for LGBT people in West Palm Beach. It took the former Chief Executive Officer five months to agree to speak on the record.
He summed up his departure from Compass like this:
“It was a mutual agreement between the board and me. I really had gotten to a point where I thought it was time for new leadership. It’s an organization that reaches out to young people and I am not young anymore – even at 45,” he said laughing.
It’s an answer that closely resembles what SFGN reported at the beginning of April when Julie Seaver, the acting Executive Director of Compass, said “Basically, he and the board decided to end his contract.”
But the question now is why did it take so long for Plakas to say that?
“The simple fact is one side was no longer affiliated with Compass. I honored my word that I would speak highly of Compass to make sure that people continued to invest and how important it was to be patient during change,” he said. “Even though I’ve been approached by a lot of people with a lot of rumors I’ve laid low and stayed out of the paper. I’ve stayed away.”
Plakas’ husband Jamie Foreman though didn’t hold back in regards to the silence from Compass.
“They fumbled the ball on their own 1 yard line. They had a million ways to handle this. And it became something that was completely non-transparent,” he said. Referring to both himself and his partner, he added: “I absolutely feel betrayed. I feel stabbed in the back really. Blindsided.”
When Tony Plakas collapsed just a few feet away from Michael Rajner at Equality Florida’s Palm Beach Gala in February of 2017 he sprang into action calling for doctors while attempting to keep Plakas’ husband calm and comforted.
“It was very scary. I honestly did not know whether he was dead or alive. It frightened a lot of us,” Rajner recalled. “I think they had to revive him, there didn’t appear to be any breathing, they were doing mouth to mouth, and chest compressions.”
Sensing that it would be better off if Foreman wasn’t around to witness the medical emergency, he led him out of the room.
“Jamie was hysterical, rightly so. In his eyes his partner had just died,” Rajner said.
Plakas would be rushed to Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach where he would spend the next 18 hours undergoing a series of tests. He’d be back to work by Tuesday for Compass’ executive meeting, but the next year of his life would be turned upside down and filled with anxiety and fear.
Eventually doctors came to believe Plakas had suffered from a syncope, not an epileptic seizure. A syncope is the medical term for fainting. Sometimes they can be violent and mimic a seizure, as in Plakas’ case. But since the doctors could not rule out epilepsy Plakas was given the option of taking anti-seizure medications.
Those medications though came with a high cost – many undesirable side effects like memory loss and slurred speech. They would plague him for the rest of the year.
But the alternative was worse – not knowing if he was going to have another seizure.
“It was on my mind all of the time,” he said.
Normal events such as driving, or being on stage, or just attending a gathering, became anxiety-filled activities.
“Every time I stood on stage I wondered if this might be the next time I was going to have a seizure,” he said. “Driving was scary. I was in an almost constant state of fear.”
Besides his serious medical condition, Plakas also had to deal with the whispers behind his back. At that time he shrugged them off, but looking back he said he realized that the rumors that persist today started with the gala.
And Compass did nothing to dispel them once he left. In fact Plakas said their months-long silence surrounding his departure only fueled them.
Plakas sat down for a second interview over lunch at Callaro's Steak House in downtown Lake Worth where he allowed SFGN to review 180 pages of medical records from his hospital stay after the seizure to confirm everything he claimed.
At one point over an iceberg wedge salad topped with applewood bacon bits and blackened chicken, Plakas had to stop speaking as he became emotional recalling his harrowing experience at the Equality Florida Gala. That night the LGBT rights organization honored Compass with its Community Partner For Equality Award.
“From the moment I walked into that door my peripheral vision was off and I was sweating through my shirt. I wanted to leave but just didn’t feel it was appropriate,” he recalled. “How sick do you have to be to not just shake somebody’s hand and accept an award on behalf of the agency?”
According to the neurologist’s report, the most likely cause of the seizure was sleep deprivation. Plakas has suffered from insomnia on and off for many years. But in the days leading up to the event he was not only having trouble sleeping, but was also under a lot of stress due to another event, the upcoming Black Women Rise conference.
Compass had agreed to be the new event’s fiscal agent, which meant it would be able to accept tax exempt donations. But when Black Women Rise announced that well known activist Angela Davis would be a keynote speaker, Plakas said, some Jewish groups and community members were concerned. Davis is controversial because of her views on Israel and has in the past compared the nation’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid. There was even pressure to have him sever ties with the conference.
But in doing so he also had to make sure Compass relationships within the community would not be damaged. Compass has enjoyed a long and close relationship with the Jewish community, bringing Holocaust exhibits to the center in 2005 and 2012.
“I thought it was a privilege that we were able to be their fiscal agent,” Plakas said. “I was being contacted by everybody with their own opinions. I wasn’t about to be the organization committed to all of the social justice issues that we are committed to, to screw up the first black women conference in the country.”
It’s clear when speaking with Foreman that he is fiercely protective over Plakas’ health and reputation.
“Everything just changed on a dime after he had a seizure,” Foreman said. “[The board and staff] should have been more concerned about his health and accommodating him. They should have given him space to become healthy. But that didn’t happen.”
According to Plakas his doctors advised him to take 90 days off of work but with all of the upcoming events, such as a PrideFest, and later in the year the Ryan White grant renewal, he said there was no way he could have done that.
Today Plakas looks fit and refreshed. He’s finally off the anti-seizure medications and no longer lives in a constant state of fear.
Compass finally released their first public statement regarding Plakas’ departure on April 24 in an email to the community.
“In January 2018, after much deliberation and consideration, and in recognition of Tony Plakas' over 20 years of service as celebrated in November 2017, the board of trustees and Tony decided to move in a new direction for the organization. We are grateful for Tony's contributions and vision. Under his leadership, Compass grew to be a nationally recognize,” the board wrote.
It’s still unclear why it took so long for the organization to release that simple statement. In fact Plakas did not even update his Facebook profile until SFGN reported he had left Compass.
“I wasn’t going to be the first person to tell the community that I wasn’t there. I wanted to give them time,” he said. “My silence was truly intended to get them through PrideFest without scandal.”
SFGN has requested an interview with Compass’ board to discuss Plakas’ departure multiple times with no luck.
The first time, on April 6, Seaver wrote in an email: “I have a board full of CPA's and auditors that are in the middle of their busiest time of year and the board's process is on their timetable and not the public or SFGN'S timetable. As I stated, our board meeting is Wednesday the 11th, so I'm afraid it's a strong possibility you won't hear from them by this Monday.”
SFGN sent an email on May 10 to Claudia Harrison, the Chief Information Officer of Compass and stated liaison to the board, once again requesting an interview with the board. Despite another follow up email on May 14 Harrison has yet to respond.
It’s this lack of response to SFGN that has Plakas frustrated.
“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Plakas said. “If a vacuum is created and neglected, nature will find a way to bring something to life, whether the story is real or not, people will fill in the spaces with the only connections that they could possibly think about.”
Plakas had hoped Compass would have addressed his leaving in a more thorough way, especially once it was clear rumors were starting to swirl.
But they didn’t.
“I think there are people in the community who immediately planted rumors,” Foreman said. “And some of those on staff would rather believe those rumors rather than give Tony the benefit of doubt, like he has given to so many other people over the years.”
After Plakas left Compass, he drafted a joint press release between himself and the organization so they’d have a way to announce his leaving. For reasons that are unclear they never sent the statement out.
But Seaver was asked about a joint statement in January when SFGN first contacted her. She said it was a great idea and she would love to release one, but that was up to the board, and she didn’t know why they were staying mum.
“I chose to believe they had a strategy. They had huge events on their hands. They were a leader short. So when the news statement came out that didn’t look like the joint statement I gave them I guess I didn’t feel protected from a negative light from being cast on me,” Plakas said. “I’ve told at least 30 people that this is not the year to hold money back from Compass, this is the year when you need to support them more than ever because they lost a long time CEO with relationships all over the county. This year they need to be extra supported and you have to be extra patient.”
For some members of the community Compass’ response has not sat well with them.
“I’m really disappointed in the board of Compass and how they handled this. I was really shocked when I heard he was gone. He’s done so much for Compass,” said Dennis Williams, owner of the Rhythm Cafe in West Palm Beach. Williams is a long time friend of Plakas and Foreman and has also been a long time supporter of Compass. “I’ve watched Compass grow, move, fall apart, put back together, fall apart and put back together again.”
Williams still remembers during one of those hard times when the organization could not even afford toilet paper.
“We’d order an extra case of toilet paper and paper towels because that’s one thing grants don’t cover and they just needed it,” Williams said.
Williams doesn’t know how much he’ll support the organization going forward.
“I don’t see a good future for Compass at this point,” he said.
While Foreman is Plakas’ husband, he was also a major volunteer over the years.
“I can’t see myself volunteering for an organization that treats any employee that way,” Foreman said.
Foreman said he was instrumental in bringing PrideFest to Lake Worth and making it a successful fundraiser as well as helping to launch the organization’s annual Stonewall Ball.
After SFGN published its first story on April 11, it took another two weeks before Compass released their statement, which did not address the 4-month delay or SFGN’s reporting on Plakas’ salary.
“They have evidence to show this had nothing to do with my salary,” Plakas said.
Plakas insists his salary was in line with other organizations and was not out of the ordinary.
“To be honest with you everybody thinks nonprofit CEOs get too much money,” he said. “It’s one of the most insidious ways to attack the integrity of a leader of an organization because the more you lead, the more you can’t be at every party, at every event. You have to start trusting other people to do the work.”
According to the latest tax documents SFGN was able to obtain, Plakas earned $126,000 in 2015. In previous years, his salary was lower. In other years, it was higher. In 2009, it was $90,857. In 2012, it was $142,830. In 2013, it was $112,000. In 2014, it was $130,500.
The reason the numbers are so wildly different is easily explainable, he said. For instance, he didn’t work a full year in 2009, and because of the way some of Compass’ contracts pay the organization, he said, he had to wait for his money, and sometimes that backpay fell into a new budget year.
“Sometimes we skipped paychecks to make sure the staff got paid,” he said.
“[His salary] was a topic that was brought up,” Seaver has previously told SFGN. She said Plakas’ salary was commensurate with directors of other LGBT organizations. “Fiduciary oversight is an extreme responsibility and [the board takes] that responsibility very seriously.”
And then there’s also the issue of the offsite development office.
“I needed somewhere to work. My office was the largest office in the building, and it included the boardroom,” he said. “The staff continued to grow between 2009 and 2017, but the building didn’t get any bigger.”
Before 2009 Plakas used the office for his consulting business, while his husband used it as well, and the two of them split the costs. Plakas could not recall the timeline but at some point Compass took over the payments.
“We’ve always had an off site development office,” he said. “We also had a different one between 2000 and 2005. I didn’t want donors and sponsors having to call the center to reach me.”
Plakas said his office cost $450 a month. SFGN attempted several times to get that information from Compass but the most they would say is it was “.02% of Compass’s 2017 annual operating budget.”
Plakas also revealed that in addition to his personal office, at some point Compass rented additional office space across from his for his executive team. He doesn’t recall how much the rent was but not does believe it was more than the $450 his office cost.
Compass shut the office down in February of this year because “it is non-ADA compliant, and we are an equal-opportunity employer.”
Foreman bristled when he read that in the newspaper. He said he found it ironic they shut the office down after Plakas left because it was not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, when he feels Compass did little to accommodate Plakas’ medical needs during 2017.
“Tony and I both believe Compass should be here and should not be harmed,” Foreman said. “It’s very hard to make that statement knowing what they did to him.”
Another long time donor of Compass, former Congressman Mark Foley, sees it the same way.
“Tony’s leadership was the prime motivation for many of us to engage in support of Compass. His concern for at risk youth struggling with their identities in families that were unwilling to support their sexuality was his underlying advocacy. His advocacy for many federal initiatives like HOPWA, Ryan White and hate crimes made him the go to person in our state for these challenging issues,” Foley said. “Regardless for the reason of his departure from Compass, no one can erase his indelible mark on a civil rights movement that was never popular nor easy during his early years at the organization. While there are many sides to any story I am certain Tony would rather us continue the mission of Compass rather than quibble over who’s to blame in this trauma or whose toes may have been stepped on.“