There have long been rumblings about Kenneth Cole’s decades-plus tenure as board chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), as if the philanthropic fashion shoe designer had turned his sincere commitment to fight AIDS into a vanity fiefdom. But after years of passive-aggressive reaction—he brings in millions but amfAR is not his pet organization—it was Cole’s controversial deal with Harvey Weinstein, prior to the film mogul’s spectacular fall into disgrace, that got Cole ousted from the board on Wednesday.
Cole’s celebrity and philanthropic savvy were welcome as amfAR hunkered down to find a cure for AIDS, both critics and supporters say. But something got lost in translation over the years and Cole’s guiding hand became gloved in arrogance.
In 2013, for instance, POZ magazine founder Sean Strub challenged the historical contextual accuracy of the Cole-produced documentary, The Battle of Amfar, that posited cancer researcher Dr. Mathilde Krim and Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor as instrumental leaders in the early dark days of the AIDS crisis, too casually brushing over the pioneering contributions of Dr. Michael Gottlieb, and AIDS activist Michael Callen and Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, who brought Krim into the AIDS fight before amfAR—both of whom started the AIDS self-empowerment movement..
A key to understanding criticism of Cole lies in Strub’s blazing Dec. 13, 2013 HuffPo op-ed, “Ken Cole Needs a History Lesson.” Strub seethes over an exchange between Cole and Chelsea Handler, with Cole saying “the gay community wasn’t speaking up, they were afraid to.” (Emphasis Strub)
“It is also worth noting that it has been under Cole’s watch as amfAR’s board chair that the visibility of people openly living with HIV on amfAR’s board has dropped to an all-time low. There may be others I don’t know about, but of the 26 individuals listed today as members of amfAR’s board of trustees, I recognize only one, former POZ editor Regan Hofmann, as openly HIV-positive,” Strub writes.
“Fewer than a third of the trustees are women. Only one, Harry Belafonte, is African-American,” Strub continues. “For Cole to suggest that either the gay community ‘wasn’t speaking up’ or imply that there wasn’t adequate attention to the disease until he got involved is wrong on so many levels. He owes the gay community–and all those who were ‘speaking up’ in those years–an apology.”
Cole’s ouster from the amfAR board was essentially lancing a boil that may have looked to outsiders like just a pretty pimple. It took a slew of respected HIV-positive AIDS activists, including Strub, ACT UP’s Peter Staley, activist Greg Louganis, among others, to take issue with a deal Cole concocted with Weinstein. According to the New York Times (by Megan Twohey, who subsequently wrote about Weinstein’s sexual harassment “complicity machine), the Huffington Post, NBC News and a lengthy investigative piece in POZ magazine, 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.
“What by all accounts amfAR did not know at the time was that, as a key source told POZ, the contract between ART and Weinstein’s production company stipulated that if by June 1, 2015, he raised in third-party donations to ART up to the amount of his own $2.05 million contribution to the musical, ART would return to him the same sum he drummed up from other sources. In the end, Weinstein recouped about $1.9 million from ART,” Benjamin Ryan wrote in POZ.
“A faction of board members, concerned at the very least about the ethics of the transactions, and upset over their fellow trustees’ response to them, blew the whistle, and in April 2017, an attorney representing this group requested an inquiry from the New York State Attorney General’s Charities Bureau. That office’s chief, James G. Sheehan, wrote in a September letter to a lawyer representing amfAR that the bureau’s subsequent review had raised several concerns including whether the ‘transaction resulted in benefits to private interests,’” Ryan wrote.
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. With federal prosecutors in Manhattan issuing subpoenas to amfAR for records and emails related to the auction as an outside law firm told amfAR no laws had been broken. Maybe—but not a good way to handle crisis PR.
“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.
But then the day before amfAR’s big Feb. 7 board meeting, the New York Attorney General ordered new Governance changes for the non-profit, including term limits for board members, and Cole was out.
“I can tell you root canal would have been more pleasant than that meeting,” Jonathan Canno, amfAR co-founding director, said in a letter to Strub. But, he added, “I really don’t see a lessening of unpleasantness within the Board.”
Strub, however, sees a silver lining. “This has been a painful and destructive episode and the task for all of us who want to expedite cure research is to try and help amfAR move forward. I hope the board in its new configuration will make a serious commitment to greater diversity on its board and to the MIPA/GIPA principles that call for greater and more meaningful involvement of people living with HIV (PLHIV),” he writes on POZ.
“In my opinion, amfAR’s board should be at least 1/3 people living with HIV. Had there been more PLHIV representation on the board—particularly representation from PLHIV networks, whose leadership is directly accountable to other PLHIV—I don’t think this ugliness would have ever happened,” Strub says.
“I know this controversy has stirred hate in people’s hearts, but I still believe Kenneth Cole is a good man who cares deeply about amfAR and finding a cure for HIV,” writes Peter Staley on his Facebook page. “But he, like many of his contemporaries, failed at scandal management 101 (disclose immediately, take your organizational hit early, and cut loose all offenders). He made human mistakes, not malicious ones. I look forward to working with him on finding a worthy successor to fill his shoes (pun intended).”