We Appreciate Your Concern, and Now You're Fired
Maybe it was Sam Gentry's idea of a spring cleaning. Or perhaps, given his recent appointment as executive director of the Miami-Dade Community College Foundation, it was Gentry's attempt at making a memorable first impression. Whatever the motivation, the casualties piled up quickly on the afternoon of Friday, March 23, when five upper-level foundation staff members were informed their contracts would not be renewed for the upcoming year: chief financial officer Eduardo Cadenas, director of research and grants Joan Reiss, director of development Carole Comarcho, development coordinator Carmen Ada Rosaly, and director of alumni affairs Mary-Angie Salva-Ramirez. Cadenas and Rosaly had been with the foundation since 1998, Reiss and Comarcho since 1999. Salva-Ramirez, a former public-relations professor at DePaul University in Chicago, was hired in January 2000.
Why would Gentry, who took over as executive director only this past February, begin his tenure at the foundation by firing a staff with ten years' collective experience, a group ostensibly assembled and trained for the purpose of overseeing a long-awaited $100-million fundraising campaign, the biggest in the college's history?
"Look, we're talking about gearing up for a major campaign," says Gentry, emphasizing the word for effect. Without commenting directly on the specific personnel involved, Gentry suggests the existing staff was not adequately qualified for a project so large in scope.
Not true, says Cadenas, who was recommended to the foundation by a former board member and whose prior experience includes four years as chief financial officer of the Zoological Society of Florida. In his view the dismissals were motivated by another factor. "[MDCC president Eduardo] Padron can't have somebody at the foundation he can't control," Cadenas asserts. "Padron wants complete control."
Cadenas believes he and his colleagues ran afoul of the college president when they began questioning the efficacy of the foundation's capital-campaign strategy, an approach that involves, among other things, continuing to pay substantial amounts of money to a consulting firm that has trouble meeting project deadlines. The campaign has floundered in the planning stages since early 1999.
Even if he had kept his concerns about the fundraising campaign to himself, though, Cadenas thinks he'd still be out of a job. That's because last fall, while serving as the foundation's top financial administrator, he temporarily held up Padron's request for foundation funds to cover the college's annual holiday party. "Padron sent me disbursement requests for the December party at the Miami Seaquarium," explains Cadenas. "Padron's two [discretionary] accounts were overdrawn, so I called the chair of the foundation's budget and finance committee to work out a solution."
Padron got his money, but Cadenas realized that, by calling attention to the college president's already controversial spending habits, he had probably overseen nothing so much as his own institutional demise. "I remember thinking, I'm fired," Cadenas recalls.
It is not the first time the MDCC president has been linked to a shakeup at the foundation, the private nonprofit corporation that raises funds for the college. In March 2000 foundation executive director Sandy Gonzalez-Levy resigned unexpectedly amid rumors she was being forced out by Padron, reportedly in retaliation for her refusal to disburse foundation money for a party at the president's private residence. Gonzalez-Levy's departure was followed by resignations from a number of foundation board members, including WSCV-TV (Channel 51) vice president and general manager Luis Fernandez-Rocha; Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce president William Collum; and businessman Juan Galan, who cited Padron's increasing control over the supposedly independent foundation and its money as his motivation for cutting his decadeslong ties to the college (see "Power Play," January 4).
Even before the upheaval on the foundation's board, however, staff members had begun to raise concerns internally about the Clements Group, the Salt Lake City consulting firm hired by the foundation in February 1999 to coordinate the campaign. In a memo dated August 14, 2000, director of alumni affairs Mary-Angie Salva-Ramirez informed acting executive director Ana Cristina Carrasco that foundation inserts, which should have been included with the spring 2000 diplomas, had been omitted because the Clements Group failed to deliver them on time. A week later director of development Carole Comarcho, also in a memo to Carrasco, voiced a similar complaint. "Regarding the foundation development kit and campaign kit," wrote Comarcho, "my impression is that we are way behind on the deadlines promised to the college." Both kits were the responsibility of the consultants. Around the same time, director of research and grants Joan Reiss called to Carrasco's attention what she perceived to be "substantial inaccuracies and exaggerations" in the Clements Group's monthly update of campaign activity.
While the correspondence could be dismissed as so much finger-pointing by the staff (though a coordinated effort seems unlikely), no one can deny that the consulting firm has failed to meet its most important objective: actually activating the $100-million capital drive. At a foundation meeting in November 1999, Susan Feamster, the Clements Group's senior vice president, estimated the foundation would begin actively soliciting gifts by June 2000. As that target date grows smaller in the institution's rearview mirror, the college appears no closer to kicking off its campaign. (When New Times contacted Feamster for comment, she responded by abruptly hanging up and did not return subsequent phone calls.)
"We should have had prospective donor listings by now," says Cadenas. "We should have been soliciting money by now. What has a million dollars gotten the college? Letterhead and envelopes?" The million dollars to which Cadenas refers is his estimate of what MDCC has thus far shelled out in consultant fees, as well as staff-related expenses, since planning for the fundraising drive began. Cadenas's estimate actually might be on the conservative side. Records reveal that from July 1999 through June 2000 alone, the foundation spent more than $700,000 on the campaign. Much of that total went toward paying and training a staff that now doesn't exist. "The capital campaign," Cadenas concludes, shaking his head at the waste of resources, "is a myth."
Ana Cristina Carrasco responded to her staff's concerns by, in at least one instance, issuing an official written warning. The warning, dated November 1, 2000, was directed at Salva-Ramirez, who, according to Carrasco, was heard to make comments "discrediting" the consultants. Interestingly enough, the site of Salva-Ramirez's alleged transgression was the foundation's fall retreat, precisely the kind of venue in which organizations normally encourage members to speak their minds. Salva-Ramirez, for her part, denied having said anything that could have been construed as malicious and asked that the warning be stricken from her personnel record.
No matter. A week after issuing that warning, Carrasco again reprimanded Salva-Ramirez, along with a handful of co-workers, for, of all things, smoking outside the foundation building on their own time. "At that point," smiles Salva-Ramirez, still amused by the episode, "they were just trying to build a case of insubordination against me. It was retaliation for my questioning of things."
Cadenas agrees: "When Padron talks, you have to keep quiet, like the old E.F. Hutton commercial."
Conversations about the internal workings of the MDCC Foundation -- under nonprofit laws an organization that must operate independently from the college -- invariably lead to Padron for a reason. Bylaw changes enacted by the college's board of trustees last fall essentially give the college president the authority to hire and fire the foundation's executive director, an arrangement that raises legitimate questions about who really runs the foundation.
Executive director Sam Gentry doesn't deny he answers directly to Padron. Indeed the former ColonialBancGroup vice president considered that arrangement a prerequisite for taking the job. "I wanted to be sure there would be a direct line of communication between Dr. Padron and myself," he offers.
That's the reason the soon-to-be ex-staffers perceive Gentry, hired after what many view as a perfunctory search, to be little more than a frontman for Padron. And why they think the order not to renew their contracts came all the way from the top.
Whether or not Padron is directly responsible for the foundation's recent housecleaning (he did not return New Times's phone calls), the firings already have had an effect: People at the foundation are scared silent. "I'm very respectful of my authority figures at various levels," recites Carrasco, who hopes to remain with the organization in some other capacity now that Gentry has replaced her as executive director. "I don't ask questions about things that don't pertain to me."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.