Having bitten my tongue at the advice of Frank Oldham’s attorneys as we waited for “justice” to prevail, I, as one of NAPWA’s longest serving board members, am finally able to set the story straight regarding how we concluded we had no choice but to close the doors on the first national AIDS organization, whose genesis was the Denver Principles.
I joined the NAPWA board in 1999, invited by Teri Anderson, interim executive director, and served until 2012. I am a married, heterosexual white woman, living with AIDS, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. I chaired the committee in 2005 that hired Frank, served as board chair for his first two years and on the executive committee for the remainder of his tenure.
Frank and I worked closely together to bring NAPWA out of a $250,000 deficit and into a financially positive position. Frank was a passionate, relentless fundraiser for NAPWA, using many deep relationships he had developed over his long and distinguished career, on behalf of those living with AIDS. He is a warm, gentle, consummate professional. Under his leadership NAPWA was able to struggle through the crushing downturns of 2008-2010 and maintain clean audits throughout his tenure.
Frank is a trusting soul who tries to see the best in all people, and in the last couple years recommended to the board the membership of several people who, in retrospect, did not have the best interests of NAPWA and its constituency at heart. It didn’t help that the three chairs who followed me all resigned during their tenures, leaving us the last few months with a new chair who was unable to control some members who consistently disrupted board meetings, shouted, yelled obscenities at other board members, and made it impossible to conduct meaningful business.
In the spring of 2012, Frank told members of the executive committee he would like to resign from his position, effective Dec. 31, 2012, staying with NAPWA as its fundraiser. He suggested young leadership would be a plus, ideally a gay, African-American male representing one of the populations hardest hit by the epidemic. Our board chair, who was just such a person, agreed he was willing to fill that role.
In the fall, the executive committee proposed the plan to the full board during a conference call, believing it provided for a smooth leadership transition with a known quantity. The call exploded into invective, screeching obscenities from the several disruptive members who disagreed. As a result, the board had no opportunity to discuss the advantages of the plan, and was thrown into its final chaotic months with a deeply divided board and dwindling resources.
Upon receiving an unexpected dismissal letter, Frank asked to talk with the board, but was denied that chance. Not only was Frank barred from speaking with the board, he was denied access to his office to take his personal belongings. To this day, he does not know what happened to the years of mementos he cherished—pictures of him with friends, political figures; items he had collected during his travels; his own personal records.
Being summarily dismissed and denied a board hearing, Frank—unfortunately—reacted by availing himself of what he believed he was owed in salary, vacation and sick leave. His action was not preplanned, an “embezzlement scheme,” or any intent to take other than what he felt he had a right to.
The matter could have been quickly settled by asking Frank to repay the approximately $11,000 in question—which he has done—and moving on. Instead, several of the disruptive board members, led by one in particular, continually pressured the Maryland State’s attorney to indict Frank. And contrary to the pre-sentencing investigator’s recommendation that Frank be given only supervised probation, at least one former board member petitioned the judge to add jail time, saying it would be in the best interests of the HIV community. Poppycock! The sentence has been decried by many in the community.
The former board member who appeared at the sentencing hearing, reading the “victim impact statement,” had been on the board less than a year, never served on the executive committee, and did not represent beliefs or views of we who suffered through the obstructionist tactics that characterized NAPWA’s final year. The person was shaking as he read the statement — as he should have been, knowing how disingenuous and self-serving it was.
Justice was not served by impugning the integrity of Frank Oldham, Jr. — a true warrior in the continuing battle against HIV/AIDS. We who love and respect him will continue to work for a reconsideration of his sentence with the hope we can quickly return him to continue his tireless efforts on behalf of the HIV/AIDS community.
A petition has begun urging reconsideration of Oldham’s sentence; you can sign it here.
Judith Billings is an attorney and educator who served for eight years as the elected Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She served on President Clinton’s HIV/AIDS Advisory Council and has served on the board of Planned Parenthood, chaired the Council of Chief State School Officers and co-chairs the Washington Council on Public Legal Education.