Q & A With Bob Kunst

Last August, on the day Bob Kunst was fired from Cure AIDS Now after a spate of allegations, audits, and front-page Miami Herald stories, an uncharacteristic silence emanated from the Miami Beach residence of the AIDS organization's deposed executive director. Bob Kunst, the Herald reported tersely the next day, could not be reached for comment.

Was it possible that Dade County's most outspoken gay activist since the mid-Seventies, the man who had taken on Anita Bryant - and the man who had been labeled, among other things, a loudmouth, a grandstander, a shameless publicity seeker, his own worst enemy, a dictator, and a rude, tyrannical egomaniac who loves the sound of his own voice - had nothing at all to say about being summarily dismissed from the group he'd founded in his very own living room six years before?

Not a chance.
As the board of directors of Cure AIDS Now decided his future, Kunst was overseas, visiting the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, experiencing what he calls his "emotional revolution," a coming to terms with his Jewish heritage. Had he been in Miami, he undoubtedly would have had plenty to say, as he had during the six weeks that led to his ouster.

On Sunday, June 30, 1991, the Herald had published a front-page article by staff writer Joe Starita, chronicling CAN staff members' allegations that the organization was $30,000 in the red. Workers hadn't received their paychecks the previous week, the sources said, yet Kunst had submitted a bill for $21,000 in unreimbursed travel expenses. Employees complained that funds could not be accounted for or were being wasted. Kunst, they felt, had strayed far ahead of the practical reality of his meals-on-wheels wagon. His unceasing jet setting was a misuse of money that should have been spent feeding AIDS patients in Dade County, an unjustifiable expenditure for an agency that lacked the money to pay its rent and utility bills.

Kunst immediately lashed out at his critics, holding a press conference in front of the Herald offices downtown to denounce the charges and defend his travels. Three days later CAN's board of directors backed him up, firing program director Dominick Magarelli for speaking to the Herald.

In response to the original article, County Commissioner Joe Gersten called for an audit of CAN, which receives $330,000 annually from the county. Gersten expressed particular dismay that county money might be bankrolling travel instead of food. Kunst countered by demanding Jackson Memorial Hospital and the South Florida AIDS Network be audited as well, because they also receive county funds.

On July 22, the county released the findings of a preliminary audit. Based on four days of investigation, auditors had found cause to question the management of CAN, and they recommended that a more in-depth assessment be undertaken. The nonprofit agency, it seemed, was in serious debt, a situation that if left unresolved would result in a $268,000 deficit by July 1992. Further, auditors stated, the group's paid executive staff dominated the nine-member board of directors. (The boards of nonprofit agencies, including thirteen surveyed by the county, commonly are made up entirely of volunteers.) This lack of independent oversight, auditors noted, could result in a conflict of interest. Further, they suggested that before releasing a $146,000 federal grant to the agency, the Metro-Dade Commission should require CAN to elect an all-volunteer board. They advised the county to "encourage" the AIDS organization to address its funding problems, and to improve its system of managing donations.

The county's auditors noted that Kunst's annual salary of $35,000 was far less than the $50,000 to $58,000 (plus travel allowances) garnered by heads of similar agencies. They also made a point of stressing that their findings were not based on a full-scale investigation. "This engagement," auditors wrote, "was limited to four days of fieldwork. Accordingly, [auditors] have not performed adequate tests to provide an audit opinion, and no opinion is contained in this report."

For Kunst's opponents, however, the audit was the platter upon which the agency director's head should be served, and they were able to broadcast that news through the Herald. "County audit is critical of AIDS agency," read the headline of a July 24 story by Starita. The "critical" audit, Starita wrote, showed CAN had done a "shoddy job of managing its money, staff, and private donations.... Former employees told auditors that cash contributions to the agency were inadequately accounted for and donated goods didn't always end up where they were supposed to." Starita didn't mention that the auditors had stopped short of reaching any conclusions about what they'd been told.

On July 25 the county commission voted to temporarily withhold the $146,000 grant; Kunst stepped down as a CAN boardmember. Three new members already had been added to the board.

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William Labbee