United Way leader’s fraud scandal marred charitable legacy

November 14, 2011

William Aramony, who built the United Way of America into an empire of charitable giving during his 20 years as its president but was jailed in 1995 for defrauding the organization of more than $1 million, died Nov. 11 at his home in Alexandria. He was 84.

He had complications from prostate cancer, said his son, Robert Aramony.

Mr. Aramony, who led the United Way from 1970 to 1992, spent six years in a federal prison after he was convicted in 1995 on 23 counts of felony charges, including conspiracy, fraud and filing false tax returns.

Revelations that he used United Way funds to pay for extramarital affairs — including a dalliance he began with a teenager soon after she graduated high school — embarrassed one of the nation’s most respected charities. His actions moved scores of charitable organizations to review their business practices.

Mr. Aramony spent much of his career working at the United Way and its predecessor groups. When he took over in 1970, he turned a sprawling network of charities without a unified mission or singular name into the United Way of America.

He recruited artist Saul Bass to design the organization’s new logo — a cupped hand and an arching rainbow. Bass described the symbol, which became a much-recognized image, as “the hand of the United Way bringing hope to people.”

To expand the United Way’s brand recognition, Mr. Aramony also forged a relationship with the NFL, which gave the organization tens of millions of dollars in free advertising by having star athletes promote charitable giving on TV.

As president, Mr. Aramony helped United Way annual donations grow to more than $3 billion in 1990 from $787 million in 1970. He was lauded within the group as a “visionary” and a “genius” whose restructuring of United Way saved the charity from dissolution.

Although United Way of America raised little money itself, the Alexandria-based organization oversaw a countrywide network composed of 2,100 independently led agencies. Those, in turn, supported 47,000 charities, including suicide help lines, rape crisis centers, the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.

United Way of America’s $29 million budget was funded by 1,400 dues-paying member groups that gave one penny of every dollar donated.

Along with shaping the network’s national agenda, United Way of America offered training and services on how to raise funds.

Mr. Aramony was one of the highest-paid executives in the charity field, earning an annual compensation package of more than $460,000. Yet, as federal prosecutors charged, he used United Way money to support a luxurious lifestyle that included craps games in Las Vegas, frequenting velvet-rope dance clubs and eating lobster dinners in tony restaurants.

In 1992, reports of Mr. Aramony’s excess by The Washington Post and Regardie’s magazine prompted the FBI and IRS to investigate his leadership at the charity.

Mr. Aramony contended that his lavish spending was a way to ingratiate himself with corporate executives to gain their trust and also their financial support.

He used United Way of America spinoff companies to buy and decorate a $430,000 apartment on New York’s Upper East Side and purchase a $125,000 condominium in Miami. He flew multiple times on the Concorde.

The United Way paid more than $90,000 for his limousine service because, Mr. Aramony told The Post, “I can’t afford to be waiting for cabs.”

Prosecutors said his worst transgressions against United Way of America involved his relationship with Lori Villasor. She was 17 and Mr. Aramony was 59 and married when they began dating in 1986. (He separated from his wife in 1988; they divorced in 1992.)

Mr. Aramony used United Way money to take vacations with Villasor and his other mistresses to Paris, London and Cairo. He bought his girlfriends manicures, bottles of champagne and bouquets of yellow roses. For Villasor, he purchased a fax machine so that she could send him love letters in his office.

Mr. Aramony resigned from United Way of America in February 1992, after The Post stories were published.

During Mr. Aramony’s 1995 trial, four of his former lovers testified against him. In his defense, Mr. Aramony’s lawyers noted that a few weeks before he left United Way, board members gave him a unanimous vote of confidence. Ultimately, his lawyers called no witnesses. He was sentenced to seven years in a federal penitentiary.

William Aramony was born July 27, 1927, in Jewett City, Conn. His parents were Lebanese immigrants. His father was a traveling clothes salesman.

Mr. Aramony was a 1949 graduate of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and received a master’s degree in 1951 from the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work.

After Army service, Mr. Aramony worked for United Way in Columbia, S.C., South Bend, Ind., and Miami before serving in the organization’s executive offices.

His first marriage, to Bebe Nojeim, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Gail Manza of Alexandria, whom he married in 2002; three children from his first marriage, William S. Aramony and Robert Aramony, both of Alexandria, and Susan Kanelidis of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and seven grandchildren.

In an interview, Robert Aramony said his father helped develop a mentoring program while he was in prison.

Putting his white-collar background to good use, Mr. Aramony helped prepare inmates for job interviews once they were released. He told his fellow prisoners that the key to success was to hold your head high, speak honestly about your past mistakes and explain with confidence why you are ready for a new opportunity.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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