Orlando – There’s a shakeup underway at Come Out With Pride. COWP chiefs and leaders of its parent organization, the Metropolitan Business Association, are locking horns.
At odds? Control of Orlando Pride, as key players reveal an alleged secrecy campaign, mismanaged finances and one man’s claim that a group of advisors called “The Elders” are pulling all the strings.
On the morning of Nov. 4, the MBA Board of Directors voted to suspend COWP’s entire Board of Directors and to fire its executive director of four years, Mikael Audebert.
Nayte Carrick, MBA vice president, said Audebert will also be removed from Converge, an MBA subsidiary focused on LGBT travel, where Audebert currently serves as executive director. Carrick could not say how long the board’s suspension would last, but said it’ll be long enough to “let the dust settle.”
“We anticipate most of the board members and production team are going to stay,” he said. “The (COWP) event is not going to change significantly. But we are going to bring it back to its mission.”
According to an emailed press release from the MBA, the rationale for the suspension and dismissal is “divergence from its mission statement, failure to meet its charitable obligations, and lack of compliance with MBA oversight and directives.” The reasons are more complex, and while the Nov. 4 vote may have felt like a sudden move, political maneuvers and machinations toward these changes have been in play since this past summer.
Debbie Simmons, MBA’s founding president, is retired now, but feels protective of the organization. She said community members have been “sounding the alarm” with her that something wasn’t right at COWP. In June, the MBA formed an audit committee to look into COWP’s finances. At the time, Audebert was president of the MBA.
“We didn’t find any criminal behaviors or anything like that, just very, very poor bookkeeping that extended beyond MBA and into other organizations,” said Michael Thomas, a current MBA board member who served on the audit Committee. He’s referring to Converge and the Wedding Alliance, two other organizations under the umbrella of MBA.
“A lot of cross leveraging and funding between different accounts,” Thomas said. “We realized there needed to be an effort to fix that.”
He said they found other problems, such as dwindling contributions to a scholarship fund and Pride Gives Back, a program that returns some of Pride’s profits to the community by awarding grants to local organizations. Thomas said they also discovered COWP 2014 will “barely break even,” partly because it allegedly lost about $30,000 on the kickoff party.
“Those of us who have been around for a while and been involved feel the event has become grossly mismanaged,” he said.
“Mikael thought we were ganging up on him and that prompted his resignation,” Thomas said, adding that he talked to Audebert about the poor timing, given the issues with the books. But Audebert moved forward with the resignation anyway, and his resignation was set to become official Nov. 1.
On Oct. 28, the COWP board voted to sever itself entirely from the MBA, a move Simmons calls “totally illegal.”
Audebert hinted at the split in an interview with Watermark shortly after Orlando Pride, where he was very clear that the organizations are separate entities and his resignation from the MBA would only mean more energy and focus for COWP.
He said the vote to sever is in bounds.
“I don’t think any bylaw changes were done in a manner that was inappropriate or breaking rules,” Audebert said, adding that he, COWP board president Brian Smith and COWP board secretary Deb Ofsowitz are meeting with an attorney to discuss options. However, he would not reveal the attorney’s name.
COWP’s relationship with MBA isn’t the only thing those at odds disagree on. Even the story of Audebert’s firing varies wildly, depending on who you ask.
Audebert claims Simmons, along with former MBA board members Mary Meeks and Marty Chapman, approached him at COWP headquarters and told him to leave the office and not come back. If he refused, Audebert said the women threatened to reveal his past and destroy his reputation, which he said were “clearly threats of defamation.”
He said the three women make up a group called “The Elders,” who are responsible for his firing which he said was “politically motivated.”
Audebert said he angered the women when he expressed his support for Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who has a contentious relationship with the local LGBT community but did tell Watermark in August that she supports marriage equality.
Meeks called Audebert’s version of events “ridiculous,” and both she and Simmons asserted that they do not have the power to fire Audebert, and both were just members of a larger advisory committee.
Simmons said she and the two women did confront Audebert Nov. 4, because she’d been reading COWP board meeting minutes and was “stunned” by what she found.
“He was running a secrecy campaign,” Simmons said. “He was bullying the board members, telling them if they talked about anything in public, he would make sure they were removed from the board.”
She said the three women went to Audebert to give him the opportunity to step down quietly. Simmons said she did so because she knew if he was fired, Audebert’s alleged “sordid history” would become public.
“He probably can’t get a job here if he has a background check,” Simmon said. “He got involved with a non-profit and he’s done nothing but cry and moan about not getting paid.”
Audebert claims his firing was motivated by political payback, while Simmons said his move to divorce COWP from the MBA was payback for Audebert not being paid the salary he wanted.
“[Audebert] decided he would take a major fundraiser away from the MBA,” Simmons said. “He’s out of his mind. He can’t do it.”
Whether that is true is unclear. Carrick, Simmons and Thomas all assert that COWP bylaws clearly state that the organization cannot change its own bylaws without prior approval of the MBA.
“COWP bylaws required any changes be approved by the MBA board,” Carrick said. “We were never presented those [changes] nor did we approve them. That was what prompted [Audebert’s firing]. We hadn’t planned on doing anything this big, but we were forced to by [the COWP vote to split from the MBA].”
However, neither the COWP nor the MBA bylaws state that. Before the vote to revise them, the COWP bylaws only mentioned the MBA five times and four of those mentions defined how board members were to be appointed or replaced. The fifth mention states that COWP “shall operate as a subsidiary corporation of” the MBA, but lacks guidelines. COWP and the other subsidiaries are never mentioned in the MBA bylaws at all.
Still, Carrick feels the COWP board was not presented “all the information they needed” for the Oct. 28 vote to cut ties.
“It is my personal, firm belief that the board members of COWP only have the best intentions for the organization,” Carrick said. “It was never their intention to run off or do anything improper.”
Setting aside the bad blood and whether the vote to split was above board, at its heart, the conflict is over two relatively simple questions—what is the mission of Come Out With Pride? And what should happen to funds raised by the event?
Simmons, Thomas and Carrick are confident that COWP was created to be the MBA’s signature fundraising event, and it should stay that way.
“The goal of Pride was… always to be a fundraiser for MBA,” Thomas said. “The best analogy is the Headdress Ball for Hope and Help Center.”
He’s referring to the annual event that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hope and Help Center of Central Florida, Inc., an HIV/AIDS education, prevention and support organization.
Audebert said that kind of cross-fundraising is “a dangerous move.” COWP is a 501c3 and the MBA, as a chamber of commerce, is a 501c6. Audebert said the MBA “has the means to raise its own funds” and COWP profits should go to community programs and be invested in improving the event itself.
Carrick also expressed concerns that Audebert’s multiple roles in MBA subsidiary organizations muddied the waters. He said it was a good idea to create a separate COWP board, a “decision that has allowed the event to blossom,” but because Audebert occupied several roles in both COWP and MBA, “we lost that balance of checks that keeps the organization doing what it’s supposed to be doing. We lost the oversight.”
So what about the mission of COWP?
Carrick said the event was created as a civil rights demonstration, where the LGBT community would come together to celebrate diversity and community with straight allies, and COWP leadership should respect and retain those roots.
“It seems like it’s gotten away from that celebration and turned more into a party,” Carrick said. “They don’t talk as much about what that day signified and how important it is.”
Audebert has brought less traditionally LGBT-supportive corporations into COWP, including the decision this year to accept a food donation from Chick-fil-A. He sees these relationships as progressive steps forward that build bridges between the LGBT community and groups less likely to support equality.
Detractors view these relationships as a grab for money, a strategy to make the event more corporate which shuts out smaller supporters who have backed Central Florida’s LGBT community for years.
Despite exhaustive efforts toward damage control, Audebert said COWP is already suffering from the conflict.
“It’s been very damaging to the organization at this point, very destructive. We’ve already gotten calls from sponsors who said are not coming back because of this,” he said, but he would not reveal the names of sponsors who have dropped COWP.
Carrick, however, is confident COWP will come out of this stronger.
“We wanted to make sure we have minimal negative, maximum positive impact to the organization,” he said. “We’re very committed to moving forward in a positive way, and we’re going to see those positive changes very soon.”
That kicks off with an emergency MBA board meeting Nov. 6, where Carrick said he expects to be elected the organization’s new leader.
From our media partner Watermark