Edwards on resignation, death threat and the future of Howard Brown

After announcing Friday that he has resigned as CEO and president of Howard Brown Health Center, Jamal Edwards was candid about his reasons for parting ways with the agency and said that a recent death threat he received is not what led to the decision, as speculated in rumors on social media.

“The last two and half years have been exhausting. The challenges have been significant and the rewards are significant,” Edwards told Chicago Phoenix. “I have reached a point to pursue other opportunities and live my life in a way that’s not as exhausting.”

Edwards was hired as CEO at Howard Brown, the region’s largest LGBT healthcare organization, in June 2010 to tackle legal problems and the severe financial crisis it faced after financial mismanagement and increasing operational costs imperiled its ability to continue. The previous CEO, Michael Cook resigned and Mark Joslyn, CFO under Cook was dismissed. By the time Edwards arrived, the agency was over $5 million in the red, he said. In late 2010, the organization asked the community for financial support in a campaign called Lifeline Appeal and accepted over 2,500 donations, which helped avoid its closure.

Edwards, 35, was brought in to turn the organization around and bring stability, which he says he achieved after his first year. In April, Edwards with other Howard Brown officials at his side, held a press conference announcing additional indications of financial turnaround. Specifically, the organization saw an audited $1.2 million surplus and positive net assets of nearly $400,000. At the time, Edwards said the financial results were the best they’d seen in years.

This came after Howard Brown was ordered to repay $715,000 in federal AIDS research grant money after an investigation revealed that it was misused and appropriated for operational expenses, which Edwards argues is a smaller punishment from the fed due to negotiations he made.

Howard Brown saw significant growth in patient volume under Edwards, growing to nearly 15,000 patients in fiscal year 2012, versus 8,000 in 2011. To expand clinical operations and increase visibility in the gay enclave neighborhood, Boystown, the organization is set to move its Triad Health Practice to a nearly 4,000-square-foot site at 3245 N. Halsted St. this fall. Howard Brown assumes ownership of the building, formerly occupied by Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group, Sept. 1, according to Edwards.

Edwards, however, faced much criticism as CEO. Several Howard Brown staffers left or were let go, including renowned youth sexual health researcher Dr. Robert Garofalo in early 2011, while others were promoted to senior-level leadership positions, like Dr. Magda Houlberg, who was promoted to senior vice president of health center operations and COO. Edwards, though, contends that he has helped increase the amount of staff at Howard Brown and that it is on track to employ a total of 200 people by 2013, according to the statement.

Edwards also received a death threat in early August, apparently found in his office chair, according to a source familiar with the matter who asked not to be named. The threat, confirmed by police, was handwritten across the front cover of a Windy City Times newspaper, authorities said, citing a police report made Aug. 10 around noon at Howard Brown’s Sheridan Road facility. Details of the message were not available from police.

“Anytime you work that hard and you do things that are difficult for folks to understand, there are going to be people who act out,” he said. “And acting out and threats against me … I had to think about the impact of the threat on me. It’s not the motivating or leading reason for the decision. Not completely.”

The threat is not representative of all of the people he worked with and clients served at Howard Brown, he said, and added that it deserves no further attention.

The most important thing he said he’ll focus on in the immediate future is being a dad and getting his son ready for his first day of preschool next week.

“School shopping … and getting ready to preschool next week — I’m excited and little shocked that it’s already here,” he said. “I want to make sure that his preschool gets off to a good start and that I can be an involved parent. It’s not going to be spent doing anything other than being proud of the work that I’ve done and getting ready for preschool.”

As for Howard Brown, Edwards notes that the institution still exists and that he left it in a position of growth. In his place, Howard Brown’s board of directors has appointed Board Chairwoman Karma Israelsen as interim president and CEO. It also named current Vice-Chairman Duke Alden as the interim board chairman.

“It’s a big job and Karma is familiar with some of the things that are required in the job and she is aware of some of things that she is facing and I wish her the best,” Edwards said.

The board of directors will conduct a national search for a new CEO, but have yet to release a timeframe for the search, according to statement it issued late Friday.

Edwards is proud that more people have access to affordable healthcare under his watch.

“I left Howard Brown better than I found it,” he said.

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