“Money can’t buy you love!” The old Beatles lyric underpins the latest criticism of designer Kenneth Cole after news reports revealed that as board chair for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, Cole made a controversial arrangement with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein to split the proceeds from two amfAR auction items, without approval from the board. More than 60 prominent AIDS activists and supporters have called for Cole’s resignation.
“We, as people living with HIV, advocates, allies, funders and policy and service professionals, urge Kenneth Cole, and remaining board members who supported this inappropriate transaction, to resign from amfAR’s Board of Trustees,” reads the Nov. 13 letter, spearheaded by HIV positive POZ magazine founder Sean Strub, who was recently elected mayor of Milford, Pennsylvania.
“Kenneth Cole’s long tenure with amfAR includes many meaningful achievements and raising significant resources for HIV research,” says the letter, posted at POZ.com. “But it is time for amfAR – which grew out of a grassroots community of people with HIV/AIDS, frontline clinicians, researchers, activists and our closest allies — to be fully accountable to the community and totally focused on achieving its mission.”
At issue is Cole’s complicity with Weinstein, a longtime amfAR supporter, who allegedly used the AIDS organization to make money back on an outside deal. According to the New York Times, the Huffington Post and NBC News, in 2015, Weinstein donated two items to be auctioned at amfAR’s annual Cannes Film Festival benefit, which he chaired. In exchange, he wanted some of the money raised by those sales to go to the American Repertory Theater (ART) without full disclosure.
Weinstein had invested in a staging of “Finding Neverland” at ART before it hit Broadway, with the understanding that ART would pay him back with money he got a third party to donate to the theater. NBC News reports: “After the auction, Cole directed that $600,000 to be wired to ART at the request of Weinstein’s office, over the concerns of amfAR’s chief executive and without board approval, according to emails reviewed by NBC News.”
Upon discovery of the deal, amfAR launched internal investigations. Cole told NBC News that he subsequently urged board members to sign nondisclosure agreements about Weinstein—who had offered a contribution of $1 million if all board members signed.
“Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have issued subpoenas to amfAR for records and emails related to the auction, and ART said it was aware of and cooperating with the investigation as well,” NBC News reports.
The amfAR board hired an outside firm that reviewed the arrangement and found it lawful, according to the New York Times.
No one at amfAR would comment for the Los Angeles Blade.
But for many AIDS activists, it’s a bridge too far. “Kenneth’s complicity in Weinstein’s unethical fundraising transactions, along with the resulting cover-up using forced non-disclosure agreements and Weinstein’s selected law firm, risk doing real damage to amfAR’s vitally important work in AIDS research and policy issues,” longtime AIDS activist and former amfAR board member Peter Staley said in a statement to NBC News.
Cole, in his statement to NBC News, said the activists’ letter “is based on a false narrative and distortion of facts.”
“I have proudly served on the board of amfAR for 30 yrs and as its chair for 13 of them. We have had an impact in many of the most important breakthroughs in the fight against HIV and AIDS having raised hundreds of millions of dollars for this lifesaving work,” he said. “I have no intention of abandoning that mission because of a transaction that was determined to be legal and ethical and was engaged in because it served amfAR’s mission.”
“Any suggestion that I somehow made this deal as a favor to Weinstein is ridiculous and patently false,” he added.
This is not the first clash with Cole by AIDS activists. In December 2013, for instance, Strub took issue with a documentary on HBO financed by Cole called “The Battle of Amfar.” The film’s promotional material emphasizes “a melodramatic mistruth” about the founding of the organization, Strub wrote on his website, seanstrub.com.
But what really angered Strub was an interview Cole did with Chelsea Handler. “This (his first involvement with AIDS) was like 25 years ago and people weren’t talking about AIDS then because stigma was so devastating (and arguably stigma has killed more people than the virus itself has), and the gay community wasn’t speaking up, they were afraid to,” he said.
“I’ve got news for Ken Cole. Twenty-five years ago, it was almost solely members of the gay community who were speaking up about AIDS. In fact, in 1987, the executive directors of almost all the national lesbian and gay organizations protested government inaction in an act of civil disobedience and got arrested in front of the White House,” Strub wrote.
There is one point of agreement, however, amfAR’s mission. amfAR researchers have been working on promising clinical trials for both a cure and vaccine for HIV—the subject of amfAR’s HIV Cure Summit in San Francisco on Nov. 28, in time for World AIDS Day.