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.

To the boardmembers who voted to fire him as executive director, it was fitting that Kunst was on another continent on August 12, while his fate was being decided in Coconut Grove. Kunst's globe-trotting, after all, was at the heart of CAN's internal strife. But his removal marked more than merely a reshuffling of the ranks within a troubled AIDS organization; it irrevocably altered the face of gay politics in Dade County. The man who for fifteen years had been the self-appointed - if unwelcome - spokesman for the homosexual community had suddenly found himself without a soapbox.

Since being fired, Kunst has devoted himself to personal projects, traveling to Europe in an attempt to organize a visit by world leaders to Dachau. In speaking about his rift with CAN, he is angry and frustrated one moment, philosophical and forlorn the next. The bottom line, he argues, is that Bob Kunst the international AIDS warrior was dragged into a struggle with small minds preoccupied with small concerns. And in the end, he says, Dade's estimated 150,000 to 200,000 HIV-positive citizens were the losers.

On Monday, August 12, 1991, you were fired as executive director of Cure AIDS Now by the board of directors. What happened?

There was a meeting on August 8. I'm out of town, but from my understanding, it was for a vote of confidence for myself. They decided they were going to rewrite my position to conform with whatever the county wanted. It was no big deal. The meeting on Monday, August 12, was strictly to write bylaws on the group in general in terms of what the county was asking for. It wasn't even an official board meeting. It was a committee meeting. Here is [board chairman] Tom Cunningham, who thinks he's so brilliant and isn't, maneuvering with [board member] Barbara Gottlieb to bring Dominick Magarelli back in. Cunningham and Joe Hudson and Brett Woods have only been on the board for a couple of weeks. I'm literally at Auschwitz when all of this going on. When I get to Budapest, I call home and here's my lover saying, "Cameras are here. Nobody can phone you. They're all screaming bloody murder. You've been fired." My response is, "For crying out loud, all this negative energy." And that's what it has continued to be. A lot of negative energy.

The real controversy started with the first Herald article. How and why do you think this article came about?

Because Dominick Magarelli gave the Herald copies of my bills and whatnot. He wanted the program to be a meals-on-wheels program only. He wanted to get rid of me and an internalized crisis like this fed right into Joe Gersten and the other AIDS groups because I was the only bigmouth opening up against everybody. They were asking, "How do you shut Kunst up and how do you keep him out of sight, and how do you reduce his credibility? How do you get him out of the way?"

I was not on very good terms with the Herald. Starita and [Herald associate editor] Jim Savage come to the office, they ask me every question, I give them every answer, I tell them the $30,000 [shortfall] is because the county cut our funds along with every other agency. It has nothing to do with my travel expenses, not a dime of which is coming from government money. This is all from private people like Jack Campbell and other people I go to and say, "Look, this is a project I'm working on. Would you like to support it? It's important for us to be there because this is what is going to happen." They might donate the money directly to Cure AIDS Now specifically for travel, and that would go into a separate account. Or, for example, Campbell owns a travel agency, so he might just write me the travel tickets and handle it that way. That's how I always operated for the last six years in terms of getting private funds. But that didn't stop Starita and Savage from playing their dirty game.

Did Magarelli initiate contact with the Herald?
Yes. And the Herald never talked to any of my people. All they did was go to Dominick and his people. None of them went to [CAN administrator] Marlene Arribas or any of my board of directors.

What reason would Magarelli have for going after you?
A year earlier, Arthur Calabrese, who is Dominick's best friend, was chairman of the board, and he starts asking questions like, "Why do we need such high phone bills?" His argument was we've got to cut the expenses. My argument was you have to raise the funds to pay for the phone bills and other expenses. Then there was the racism. Both Arthur and Dominick were just super racists, so I'm playing policeman between the Hispanics and Anglos, the blacks and Haitians.

Part Two
I wanted to get focused in terms of: here are the clients, here are all the governments we have to deal with all over the place, here's the money we have to raise. Finally I'd had enough. So I said, "Arthur, I don't want you here any more. You're dividing the office, you're going crazy." I threw him out, literally. That was the start of all this.

Wouldn't you agree it sounds strange for the executive director to be throwing out the chairman of the board?

I could not take any more bullshit - the division, the racism, and everything else. I needed to deal with a focused group of people who are committed to keeping people alive. So I got rid of him.

Doesn't that feed into their criticism that you are an egomaniac?
Of course I'm an egomaniac. I'm a total idiot to be in this altogether. But the thing is, I have honesty and integrity and I created one hell of a program. If they had a problem, why didn't they start their own program? Why tear us apart?

It wasn't until last summer that your critics went to the Herald. Why not six months earlier, or even six months later?

Just before the Herald thing, Dominick was hospitalized, out of the office. But he had already been losing clients in the meals-on-wheels program because he wasn't keeping up the paperwork. So Marlene and I were going to switch the program to [CAN employee] Manny Estrada. The point is that we have lives at stake. The next thing I know, Savage and Starita show up, and I'm saying, "Wow, what's this all about?"

What it was about, says Magarelli, who replaced Kunst as executive director, and board chairman Tom Cunningham, is that Cure AIDS Now was on the brink of bankruptcy: The agency's records were a mess. The utility bills hadn't been paid. The landlord was about to evict the organization from its bungalow on South Dixie Highway because the rent hadn't been paid in three months. Even the auto insurance premiums on the food delivery vans were overdue. On top of everything, they allege, funds were going to waste on everything from bumper stickers to Kunst's personal travel expenses. They told the Herald Kunst had submitted $21,000 in travel expenses that he expected the agency to reimburse.

"We are a Dade County food program and Kunst did not want to concentrate on that fact," says Magarelli, who won't say whether he initiated the Herald's involvement. "This is not a political organization and that's what he was trying to turn it into. He lost sight of what this program is about and let his ego get in the way of helping people with AIDS. The fact was that someone had to do something before the agency was shut down."

At present Cure AIDS Now is undergoing an audit by a certified public accountant. (Magarelli says the accountant volunteered his time. Kunst says the City of Miami had already allocated the money to pay for it.)

Cunningham, who says Kunst's allegations are the ramblings of a bitter man, says, "If Bob Kunst took all the good will and energy he is capable of producing and used it for the betterment of the gay community and the AIDS-infected community, we could take on some wonderful projects right here in Dade County. But he would rather spread himself all over the world and build a name for himself than build a safe haven right here at home for people with AIDS. If he had taken the money that was blown on travel, do you know what we could have accomplished right here in Dade County?"

You say the $30,000 the agency owed was a result of cutbacks in funding. What about the $21,000 in travel and other expenses?

I never even submitted an official request for reimbursement. I would say $12,000 of that money was for travel expenses I paid out of my pocket, and I took the attitude that if at some point there was some money donated for travel that could be used to reimburse me, fine. If not, I would just have to eat it. The rest of that money was used to keep the operation going. There were times when we didn't have enough money for payroll because we hadn't gotten the check from the county, or all the papers weren't ready to submit the check. And I would take the money out of my pocket. We needed money for the phone bill, I would take money out of my pocket; we needed money for this, I would take it out of my pocket. The people running the place now still have my last ten paychecks. You didn't see that in the Herald.

The interesting thing is that for all this piddly shit that was going on, it was not just one front-page story, it was twenty stories. All this real scandal going on all over the place and it barely gets any coverage, and I get twenty stories. I'm honored, except for the fact that there was a malicious purpose, which was to get me out of the way.

If you were paying operating expenses out of your own pocket, why didn't you just cut down on the travel and use some of that money?

The county, and every one of the governments we deal with, knew from the very beginning that we were doing it differently, that we were international in scope. Everything that I was bringing back was information on how to keep my clients alive. The idea was that the more people started talking about this like it was some emergency instead of politics as usual, the more they would cough up the dollars to be able to deal with our own crisis. So the impact of being able to get this message across is enormous. I think we were getting our money's worth.

Your critics blamed the financial crisis on everything from travel bills to unauthorized use of funds and no documentation of donations. They say the rent and bills hadn't been paid.

It's all bull. All the checks we needed came in that week, anyway. The first round with the Herald fell on its ass. Even though it was damaging on one hand, nobody believed it. July was a month of terror, but we felt everything was resolved. The county, which was the biggest bitch because Gersten is making political hay with the whole thing, comes in and does an audit. They come up with five points: First, we need to make sure there are no paid staff members on the board, so I immediately resigned as acting chair. Fine. Secondly, we needed to have new bylaws making sure we had strong oversight by an independent board. Third, we need to send a copy of the bylaws to the IRS. Fourth, we need to give the county a budget for the next year, which was going to be the exact same $330,000 we had - Mr. Gersten, in spite of all of his protests about wanting to save a life, he's so full of shit it's unbelievable. And finally, we needed to separate the duties of executive employees and boardmembers.

You accused Magarelli of instigating the Herald investigation; you called it back-stabbing politics.

Absolutely. I said he was totally racist and everything else. I made my presentation and the board said, "We do not want to support this treachery. We want Dominick out." And they fired him both from the board and from the office.

Why only Magarelli? Several CAN people talked to the Herald.
Because he was the only one who was still there. The others were former employees. The only other person instigating the thing was Barbara Gottlieb, who was on the board. She was the worst conniver in the whole group. She brought in the other characters like Tom Cunningham. There was a lot of hatred from Cunningham that goes back to Anita Bryant. He comes in with Barbara two weeks before I'm fired, and now he's running the place.

There is a philosophical difference as well, isn't there, in that Magarelli believes CAN should only be a food program?

Doing a food program is not the issue we started with. We were a one-stop operation for everything. It's not Dominick's laziness. He would accept from Gersten and the county, "I will feed 200 people." I would say, "We will feed everybody who needs to be fed because we're here to keep everyone alive." Dominick would only play the game, "We'll take what we can get."

Why did Gersten call for the county audit?
It was strictly political. Gersten had always complimented me publicly and otherwise. But the moment he got into bed with [Dade Action PAC chairman] Greg Baldwin and Baldwin is saying, "Hey, we got the money. We got the committee. We'll promise you the gay vote," that was it for me and Gersten. Gersten, who wants to be mayor worse than anything, sends out this call for an audit. But he didn't send it to the county manager. All he did was send it to the press. We went to the county manager and said, "We got a copy of this, have you gotten a copy?" He didn't even know about it. Gersten to me is a nothing. He's greedy and he's a sleaze and he'll do anything to get elected.

You responded by calling for an audit of Jackson Memorial Hospital and the South Florida AIDS Network, both of which receive county funds. Gersten called it a ploy to deflect criticism from CAN.

I wouldn't expect any other response from Gersten. What we were saying is that every AIDS organization should be held accountable. We were glad to be audited, but everyone else needed to be audited, also. Jackson wouldn't turn over the audit because if they did, it would turn out to have been just like what happened after the [September 3] election. All of sudden they're spending half a million dollars just to fix up a boardroom.

We had asked for an audit of Jackson for years. I had challenged Jackson and all these other groups in front of the state legislature: What are you doing with the money? You're grabbing and grabbing and grabbing but you're not dealing with direct services. The point is, we're overworked and we don't have enough money, and Gersten and the others keep giving money to other programs to play out politics with this black thing, and this gay thing, and this Hispanic thing, and this Haitian thing, but not the AIDS thing. We are doing the AIDS thing, giving this community ten million dollars worth of services for the million bucks that we're getting, and where is the help?

Part Three
The county's health and human services committee recommended freezing the $146,000, pending results of the audit. Do you think that was politics at work?

Of course it was. We had already got our [federal] Ryan White funding for this year. The freezing of this grant was for next [fiscal] year. But they didn't tell the public that. They made it look like they were cutting off our funding immediately, until things were resolved.

And the next phase is when the Miami Herald has a story in December, congratulating [board chairman] Cunningham and [boardmember] Joe Hudson for the great work that they have done, and now the citizens of the community can feel grateful that all of their dollars are going into food.

The preliminary audit did raise some serious questions: turnover, conflict of interest, et cetera.

Put it this way. The auditors work for the county, right?. Where is the turnover, anyway? The turnover is that people who put in years of service were all fired. We were all fired. And we were replaced with everybody we had fired before. And where is the conflict of interest? All I can tell you is the auditors repeated the Herald story. They didn't talk to any of us. After all the bullshit it boiled down to five points. That's all they asked for. We said, "Fine, there's no big deal." Whatever the county said, we were willing to go along with. Everything else is political hype.

The conflict-of-interest allegation was that there was no independent oversight of the executive staff.

What does that mean? What was wrong with the program? Here we have 500 corporations, we have five million dollars worth of resources, we have the number-one program anywhere, we're feeding over 1000 people, we're handling everything under the sun from A to Z. And all the new grants and proposals - it was all happening. We were just waiting for that turning-around point to get out of this mess of the $30,000 in debt. There was nothing wrong, and there was nothing unethical. We were doing our jobs.

CAN finally announced it would forbid staff members from sitting on the board. Why not do this from the beginning? Why wait this long to organize as most nonprofit organizations do, with independent, volunteer boardmembers?

Because we didn't have boardmembers who were willing to give us the time. We were dealing on a crisis level, pulling together a brand new, outrageous program. We were taking on everybody from the White House and the World Health Organization on down. There was nothing hidden, ever. Tell me where there is a conflict of interest. The conflict of interest is if you're not providing the basics. If you can't pay an employee, i.e. Dominick and us, for one fucking week, too fucking bad. He was supposed to be an executive, not a schmuck. The bottom line is that he was selling us out to play out this little toilet game.

What has happened at Cure AIDS Now since you left?
You have seen the disintegration of what we tried to accomplish. The first thing they do is they cut out the testing program. We were an official test site for the state of Florida. You have no idea how long it took us to get this, to pull it out of the entrenchment of the establishment. Three fucking years. We're getting people coming in who would never go to the health department, and we're giving them stats that they can go back to the federal government with and get more money. Dade County goes to HRS and says, "Hey, we only have 50,000 HIV infections in Dade County." And I say, "Wait a minute. I know the figure is somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000." That was on a sign on the highway, which of course they took down. They've dismantled everything we worked to build.

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William Labbee