By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The American Red Cross forced its president and chief executive, Mark W. Everson, to resign yesterday because he had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate, a spokeswoman for the disaster relief agency said.
Everson's ouster was a blow to the Red Cross, which has faced a rapid turnover in leadership and has struggled to restore a reputation damaged by its response to Hurricane Katrina. The agency's fifth chief in six years, Everson was at the helm of the federally chartered organization for six months.
The Red Cross board of directors asked for his resignation after learning of the relationship 10 days ago, spokeswoman Suzy C. DeFrancis said.
Mary S. Elcano, the agency's general counsel and a veteran federal official, was named interim president and chief executive yesterday. The board formed a committee to select a permanent replacement.
The Red Cross had high hopes for Everson, who had served in the Bush administration since 2001, most recently as commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and before that as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was considered a seasoned leader, skilled at navigating the politics of Washington and capable of managing the Red Cross's more than 700 chapters.
Everson, 53, who is married and the father of two grown children, issued a resignation statement.
"I am resigning my position for personal and family reasons and deeply regret it is impossible for me to continue in a job so recently undertaken," Everson said. "I leave with extraordinary admiration for the American Red Cross, the service its men and women provide our nation, and for the humanitarian work of the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement across the world."
In an unusually candid news release, the Red Cross said its board "concluded that the situation reflected poor judgment on Mr. Everson's part and diminished his ability to lead the organization in the future."
DeFrancis declined to name the subordinate but said she still works at the Red Cross. DeFrancis said she did not know whether the woman would be disciplined. Red Cross officials said they are not aware of any financial improprieties or allegations of preferable treatment stemming from the relationship.
The 126-year-old Red Cross handles half of the U.S. blood supply and has federal responsibility for coordinating the charitable response to the country's largest catastrophes.
Board chairwoman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter called Everson's departure "difficult and disappointing news for the Red Cross community."
"The organization remains strong and the life-saving mission and work of the American Red Cross will go forward," McElveen-Hunter said in a statement.
News of Everson's ouster shocked leaders of nonprofit groups and his former colleagues in the Bush administration.
"I'm stunned. . . . I just can't imagine what would have led to this," said Sean O'Keefe, a former Navy secretary and NASA chief who worked with Everson in the early years of the administration.
"His work ethic was impeccable. His judgment from what I saw was outstanding, and he helped lead a series of management initiatives," O'Keefe, chancellor at Louisiana State University, said in an interview yesterday.
The Red Cross has faced top leadership turnover as executives have clashed with the agency's large activist board. Everson was the sixth permanent or interim chief since Elizabeth Dole stepped down as president in 1999 before being elected a Republican senator from North Carolina.
"Good God, how many CEOs have they gone through in the last five years? Four? Five?" asked Peter Dobkin Hall, a Harvard University lecturer who specializes in nonprofit groups. "You can't have a revolving-door chief executive in an organization like that and retain its credibility."
Bernadine Healy, chief executive of the Red Cross from 1999 until she was forced out in 2001 after clashing with the board, said yesterday that the turnover rate damages the organization.
"I think it's a tragedy that this organization is not able to have stable leadership, particularly at a time at which America needs such an enterprise," Healy said.
Everson oversaw a broad restructuring plan for the $3.4 billion organization as it sought to overcome sharp criticism from members of Congress about its performance after Hurricane Katrina and other major disasters.
The Red Cross was applauded for its relief efforts after last month's wildfires in Southern California. But observers said the agency has a long way to go to restore confidence.
Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service who is a Red Cross critic, said Everson was "in well over his head" because he did not have direct experience in disaster relief before taking over the organization.
"I just think it may turn out to be a cloud with a silver lining for the Red Cross," Light said of Everson's departure. "The next president has got to know the business intimately before arriving on his or her first day."
Everson, a resident of Arlington County, received a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a master's degree from New York University's Stern School of Business.
Active in Republican circles, he has cycled in and out of government and the private sector.
While living in Turkey during the 1990s as an executive at a French aluminum packaging products company, Everson adopted a boy and girl from an orphanage there. He and his wife also cared for a foster daughter.