When Elliot Johnson agreed under pressure last week to resign after only four months as chief executive of Whitman-Walker Clinic, it marked the end of a tumultuous and embarrassing episode for the HIV/AIDS services agency.
Just about everything that could have gone wrong did after the nonprofit agency's board chose Johnson to succeed Jim Graham, the respected, bow-tied executive director who personified the clinic for 14 years. Graham departed in January, after winning a seat on the D.C. Council.
There were problems on several fronts:
A few board members resigned in anger last spring when a board majority, sensing the need for a fresh face to lead Whitman-Walker, chose to bring in Johnson from Los Angeles rather than select one of two local AIDS experts who were members of the board.
Soon after Johnson started working full time at Whitman-Walker in September, the medical director, the chief operating officer and other senior managers resigned.
Meanwhile, clinic staff members were beginning to complain that Johnson was behaving inappropriately in the office, with affectionate hugs of greeting and comments to men about their attractiveness. Johnson, 55, also declared his newfound comfort with being a gay African American man so frequently that one staffer advised him to stop bringing it up all the time.
Clinic officials say that most importantly, Johnson was ill-suited to the roles required by the job--raising money, interacting with the media and communicating with government officials, private foundations, corporations and individual donors that pay for much of the clinic's operations.
But there was something else, something not reported by the executive search firm to which Whitman-Walker had paid $45,000 to find candidates to replace Graham: Johnson had been arrested in Los Angeles in 1995 and charged with lewd conduct in a city park. After a three-day trial that ended with a hung jury leaning toward conviction, Johnson agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of disturbing the peace.
Whitman-Walker officials say they learned of Johnson's criminal record only recently. Patricia Hawkins, a top clinic deputy for the past 10 years, said it isn't clear whether board members would have automatically disqualified Johnson from the Whitman-Walker job, but she said it would have led to more in-depth vetting of his background.
Johnson declined to comment for this story. But his attorney, David C. Simmons, who negotiated the resignation agreement for him, said Johnson had difficulty establishing rapport with people in the District.
Before his hiring, Johnson was administrator of HIV/AIDS outpatient services at Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center, the nation's largest such clinic.
"He's unhappy about the entire situation," Simmons said. "The resolution we were able to reach was about as good as you're going to get."
Whitman-Walker officials acknowledge that the clinic's image as one of the Washington region's best-run and largest locally based nonprofit groups has been damaged by the Johnson episode. Now they are trying to focus attention on the man who will take the helm in February, clinic board member Cornelius Baker, who is executive director of the National Association of People with AIDS.
The clinic board voted unanimously last week to hire Baker--one of the two candidates the board passed over last spring.
"I'm a million times more optimistic than I was a few weeks ago," Hawkins said. "People will still give [money]. There's more turmoil in the short term, but that does not impact the work or the message to the community. I don't see this as hurting us in any significant way. It could have."
Indeed, the racial tensions surrounding Johnson's tenure have left the Whitman-Walker community fatigued and sensitive.
After Johnson was placed on administrative leave Dec. 3, racially charged accounts about the reasons for his ouster whisked through the District's gay and lesbian communities.
Rumors in the black community explained Johnson's removal as evidence that an organization founded by gay white men--and disparaged by some black critics as "Whiteman-Walker"--has yet to carve out a comfortable place in black Washington.
At the same time, white observers portrayed Johnson as being forced out by the board for being biased against white senior managers.
Early this month, as speculation intensified and the clinic board kept mum about what was going on, Johnson subtly stoked the dialogue by suggesting to the Washington Blade, a newspaper that focuses on the city's gay community, that policy differences over the clinic's efforts to reach out to the black community were at issue.
"Old ways of doing business and old approaches to addressing the problem of AIDS . . . must be examined and altered if we are to better target women, people of color, the indigent and youth who are now most impacted and most at-risk from this disease," Johnson said then.
But top clinic officials--black and white--say none of those views captures the realities of the situation.
"It is implausible to suggest we would have hired an African American director in June and asked him to resign in November because he was an African American," said clinic board President Mark M. Levin. "We hired him for reasons other than his color and did not ask him to resign because of his color."
And the notion that Johnson got rid of managers because they were white? "A big lie," Levin said. "People just say whatever comes into their brains."
Board members, current and past clinic officials and outside observers said in interviews that Johnson's background simply didn't prepare him for the job.
"Here's a guy from the West Coast with no roots in the city coming to run a community-based organization," said Denise Hyater, who resigned in October as director of education and prevention programs. "What was his vision? I don't think that was ever described. Maybe three or four months wasn't enough time, but in the interim there were damaging comments or activities that hurt his credibility."
Hawkins said Johnson didn't have a feel for fund-raising or working with a board because the Los Angeles clinic was a government-funded agency. "He had always been in a more civil service setting," she said.
Perhaps the biggest unresolved question concerning Johnson is why Whitman-Walker board members were unaware of his criminal record before hiring him.
Johnson was arrested in November 1995 on a hiking trail in Los Angeles's Griffith Park and charged with lewd conduct, a misdemeanor. In a three-day trial in January 1996, a jury voted 10 to 2 to convict him, causing a mistrial.
To avert a retrial, Johnson pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $100 fine--and ordered, as a condition of probation, to stay away from Griffith Park's trails.
Johnson's current attorney, Simmons, said the criminal case had no effect on Johnson's job running the county's AIDS clinic.
Joseph McCormack, of McCormack and Associates executive recruiters in Los Angeles, said he was not told of the conviction by the firm that performs criminal background checks for him.
Privately, Whitman-Walker officials have discussed pursuing legal action against McCormack's firm because they weren't told about Johnson's criminal record.
Whitman-Walker, which has offices in Northwest and Southeast Washington, Hyattsville and Arlington County, offers comprehensive health and mental health care, housing, relief services and other types of assistance to more than 4,000 clients. Under Graham's stewardship, it became the largest provider of AIDS services in the region and one of the nation's largest AIDS clinics.
Whitman-Walker's trouble making the transition to the post-Jim Graham era reflects the difficulties faced by many organizations in which long-term, stable leadership ends, said Sandy Thurman, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy.
Several years ago, Thurman left Aid Atlanta, an AIDS services organization, after six successful years. The agency already is on its third director since she left.
"When so much of the culture is personality-based, and people are so heavily invested in causes like HIV and AIDS, the shift in culture and any kind of change in general comes very, very hard," she said. "That's part of what we're seeing at Whitman-Walker."
CAPTION: Efforts to find a successor to former leader Jim Graham, now a D.C. Council member, have caused discord among Whitman-Walker Clinic officials.