Three minutes. Buzz. Three minutes. Buzz. Three minutes. Buzz.
That’s what Pride Center board member Heidi Siegel heard over and over again at the organization’s monthly meeting a few weeks ago as she attempted to talk about a sex predator who was allowed to work on campus.
“They tried to stop me from speaking,” she said.
Despite the buzzer going off every three minutes, she refused to stay silent. Siegel continued her impassioned speech for about 15 minutes.
“People heckled me. They painted me as a villain. They insinuated that I was a racist. Someone said I was a bad mother,” Siegel said. “Someone else shouted out that the oppressed had become the oppressors. Someone told me to not come back to the center. My entire speech was just about trust and betrayal.”
However, another board member had a completely different take on the meeting.
“The latest Pride Center Board meeting was handled like it always is - openly and professionally,” said Denise Spivak. “All interested members of the community were given fair and ample time to speak, while the Board quietly and respectfully listened.”
Richard Alalouf, the executive director of South Florida Family Pride, also attended and backed up Siegel’s recollection of the meeting.
Siegel, who is a mother, was deeply troubled over the fact that a convicted sex predator had been allowed to work at the Pride Center for years.
The employee in question, Clarence Collins, was found guilty in 1997 on two charges: sexual battery on a victim less than 12 years old and lewd and lascivious behavior on a child under 16. He’s also listed on the sex offender registry. He has worked at the Pride Center in some capacity since 2003.
Meanwhile, the Pride Center controversy has not gone unnoticed by authorities. In a new development this week, Collins was arrested and charged with two criminal charges relating to his status, first failing to re-register as a sex offender, and second, failing to notify law enforcement of a change of address.
Collins apparently lived in Wilton Manors. He has not been able to make his bond, which is set at $3,500, and he’s facing a special condition that upon his release, he wear an electronic ankle monitor.
As a member of the board, and as someone who brought her daughter to campus, Siegel didn’t know about Collins’ history.
As soon as she found out about a sex predator working at the Pride Center, she pushed Chief Executive Officer Robert Boo to fire him immediately.
Siegel has since resigned from the board.
Before her resignation, she told SFGN, “I’m not sure my values are in alignment with the board or the leadership for the Pride Center right now.”
Though Spivak said, “I and the other Board members fully support [executive director] Robert and think he is doing a great job of handling the situation.”
“That’s the attitude that led me to resign,” Siegel added.
Other current board members include: Mark Budwig, Dr. Leslie Leip, Chris Caputo, Craig Engel, Mitch Bloom, Jason Hagopian, Brenda Hartley, Ernest Olivas, Richard Safaty, Paul Smith, Jane Bolin, and James Walker.
When Richard Alalouf found out about the sex predator, he hoped no one at the Pride Center knew. So when he learned some of them did know, he was angry and felt betrayed.
But his first thought was about his son. “He was alone with my kid. That was my immediate reaction.”
The playground project at the Pride Center was Alalouf's idea. It’s a personal point of pride for him.
“They had a duty to my group to tell us about this,” Alalouf said. “We partnered with them on the assumption that this was a safe place for children to play.”
Alalouf runs the South Florida Family Pride, an organization that provides support, advocacy, and fun for LGBT parents with children in South Florida.
His group represents more than 600 families. Over the past few years the group has grown closer to the Pride Center with the building of the playground as well as the organization using the Pride Center’s facilities for its events.
CEO Boo told SFGN two weeks ago the employee in question, Clarence Collins, was never “on-site during any events involving children.”
“That’s an absolute lie,” Alalouf said. “He was there to help me set up, tear down. He was at the front desk when I had 60 children there.”
Siegel also disputed Boo’s statement. She once remembered instructing her daughter to help Collins in the kitchen during another event.
Another member of the community, who did not wish to be identified, sent a photograph to SFGN showing Collins with a child at a Christmas Party at the Pride Center.
SFGN also followed up with an outside group that has used the Pride Center’s facilities in the past on whether or not they were asked if children would be at their event. That question never arose.
Boo sent two apology letters to South Florida Family Pride so Alalouf would have something to send to his membership. Alalouf rejected the first letter when he deemed it not apologetic enough, saying that Boo didn’t take full responsibility.
“In 2015, we built a playground on our campus in order to better serve our community of families. From that point until March 17, The Pride Center was not aware that this employee was prohibited by statutory requirements from being within 300 feet from a playground,” Boo wrote in his second letter to SFFP. “The simple truth is, I did not know about the statute. This is not an excuse, but the reality. Nothing more, nothing less. I deeply apologize. I learned about the playground statute on Saturday, March 17, and terminated the former employee on Monday, March 19. I took immediate action.”
But according to Julie Carson, a city commissioner for Wilton Manors, she brought up Collins to Boo more than a year ago.
“I contacted Robert to make sure he was aware that Clarence is a sexual predator,” Carson said. “I trust Robert and I trusted that he knew the right things to do. In hindsight I’m very upset with myself for not following through. I took somebody’s word that it was OK.”
Alalouf said that many people who attended the recent board meeting stood up in support of Collins with a “poor Clarence” attitude.
“One person said they felt indebted to [Collins] because she was outside and somebody jumped out of the bushes and he helped her,” Alalouf recalled. “The property isn’t safe for children playing on that playground.”
Boo also defended Collins to SFGN two weeks ago, saying, “The individual was an elderly janitor who decades prior, had one reported incident of inappropriate behavior toward a child. He had served his time and wanted to repay his debt to society. In his years of service at The Pride Center, he did not raise any red flags.”
Alalouf rejected that argument: “This person is a sex offender. He molested a person under the age of 12 in his 40s. This was not some stupid mistake when he was a teenager.”
For Alalouf though, Boo’s entire defense was a deflection.
“The law is clear: Sex offenders are not allowed to work near a playground,” he said.
A few years ago, South Florida Family Pride asked the Pride Center to be its fiscal agent, which means the organzation could collect tax exempt donations without being a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Alalouf terminated that arrangement last week.
“I don’t trust them anymore,” he said. “They failed the community. They failed us.”
Even though Alalouf is angry, he said, “I love Robert to pieces. But this is a slap in the face to the people who donated money for the playground. One family made a $10,000 contribution.”
Alalouf added: “When the Pride Center started serving growing gay families the dynamics of the Pride Center changed instantly. They pursued that demographic. When it comes to families the gay community has its head in the sand.”
As for Collins, Alalouf said, “He was a nice guy, yes. but I feel sorry for the child he molested. I feel sorry for the victim’s family.”
SFGN first reported this story two weeks ago and interviewed Boo. SFGN followed up with him this week as more details began to emerge.
He requested the questions be sent via email and then asked for an extension after he missed the deadline. Despite the exemption being granted, his final responses did not address SFGN’s questions, which are listed below.
- To the best of your knowledge who on staff knew of Clarence’s sex offender status? Did any of the board know?
- I’ve spoken to some people who feel the Pride Center betrayed them by keeping this a secret. How do you respond?
- One such person is Richard from the South Florida Family Pride. He feels his organization should have been made aware of this before the playground was installed. Since this organization deals with LGBT families and children why weren’t they made aware?
- Richard as well as others have disputed your claim that Clarence was not “on-site during any events involving children.” Some people have also stated they encouraged their own children to help Clarence out at the Pride Center. How do you respond?
- About how many people approached you over the years about Clarence’s sex offender status?
- It is illegal for a sex offender to work near a playground. Were you not aware of this?
- Do you know if there have been any other sex offenders who have worked at the Pride Center since you've been there?
Here are the four responses Boo sent back to SFGN:
- “Upon learning of a statute violation related to our playground and a former employee of The Pride Center, we took immediate and decisive action by terminating the individual."
- “The Pride Center at Equality Park is a unifying force within the LGBTQ community, delivering vital services. We have always sought to provide a welcoming environment that as a top priority ensures the safety and security of all of our members, partners, visitors and their families."
- “As the CEO I bear and accept full responsibility for the handling of this situation, including the decision to terminate this individual. I appreciate the fact that The Pride Center’s Board of Directors is in full support of the steps taken to date."
- “We have launched a new task force to review all policies and procedures and to ensure that members of our community continue to place their trust and confidence in The Pride Center.”
Collins has found supporters amongst the friends he made while working at the Pride Center. One such person has set up a GoFundMe page page to help raise funds for Collins because “he is going through a rough patch,” and “is having a hard time finding a job and a place to live.”
But before that happens, he will have to face a circuit court judge.
Siegel and Alalouf both now believe Boo should resign and the board should launch an internal investigation. So far the board has only committed to form a task force that will review all policies and procedures in an effort to gain back the community’s trust.
Alalouf also believes the playground should be shut down until the Pride Center can ensure every child that visits is safe.
Meanwhile in the city of Wilton Manors, Commissioner Carson said she would add this controversy to the next city commission meeting agenda.
“The city will be notifying all of the schools, all of the agencies and any other parties that must be notified by law.”
She later added: “I hope and pray there are no children that come forward that are victims of sexual abuse. I hope there are no children that have been victimized. That’s my first hope.”