When Charles Martin took over the South Beach AIDS Project (SoBAP) in 2005, he revamped the nonprofit's outdated image by reaching out to young, gay blacks and Hispanics. He traveled to conferences around the world and pulled in state and federal grants to combat HIV.
But in the past year, Martin and SoBAP have been hit by two federal lawsuits by ex-employees who accuse Martin of financial improprieties, sexual harassment, and retaliation. A report by the Department of Health's Office of the Inspector General (HIG) states that Martin pocketed company funds and told employees to lie to state investigators. The report warns that SoBAP — Florida's only AIDS group specifically for gay people — is in disarray and could soon be cut off from state funds.
"This agency was created many years ago by people who truly believed in helping people with HIV/AIDS," says Vladimir Rednikov, a former employee who sued Martin and SoBAP. "But Charles Martin has completely brought the agency down."
Martin denies any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime. But eight former employees sued him and SoBAP after they were fired in February 2011. In two separate lawsuits, they claim they were axed after complaining about sexual harassment by Martin.
"He would call us 'fag' or 'top' or 'bottom,'" says Rednikov, who adds that Martin also sent unsolicited, sexually explicit text messages and offered subordinates "sugar massages." Martin sometimes called employees into his office, where they'd find him sporting a hard-on, Rednikov claims. "He seemed to enjoy our embarrassment. And he told us if we ever complained to the board, we'd be fired."
When Rednikov and others did come forward, SoBAP launched an internal investigation, which closed without finding wrongdoing. Shortly after, Rednikov and the others were fired. They sued, claiming retaliation.
Then, this February, the HIG released findings from its own investigation. The report didn't discuss the accusations of sexual harassment, but it did substantiate financial complaints. It found Martin had pocketed hundreds of dollars in travel reimbursements. And he had told seven former employees to lie under oath.
In a short email to New Times, Martin called the allegations "all completely untrue." In a letter to the HIG, a lawyer for SoBAP called the state's investigation "recklessly irresponsible."
It's unclear whether the state will continue to fund SoBAP. The organization has recently reached settlement agreements in both lawsuits (Rednikov spoke to New Times before signing his), but little else appears to have changed. Martin remains executive director.
"Why is he still in charge when these allegations have been proven?" asks Rednikov.