Howard Brown working to reimburse Northwestern following controversy

Sean Lavery

After months of unease about mismanagement of HIV/AIDS research grant funds, a prominent Chicago gay and lesbian health center closely affiliated with Northwestern is struggling to stay afloat while repaying funds to NU that it apparently misused for non-research-related expenses.

But new reports indicate that Howard Brown Health Center will avoid closure after raising nearly $660,000 from private donations between Nov. 4 and Christmas, according to news releases and media reports. That money will be used to reimburse NU for funds that were earmarked for research but used for the center’s operational costs, officials said. The money was kept in a shared account between the two entities.

Bruce Elliott Jr., the executive director of NU’s Office of Sponsored Research, said the fundraising effort was part of a legal arrangement to reimburse NU for the mishandled money.

“Some of the funds that should have been used to pay Northwestern were used to pay for operational expenses at Howard Brown,” Elliott said. “So the account we had went into deficit.”

It is unclear if sufficient funds have been raised to cover the debt or if any funds have already been transferred to NU. Officials on both sides of the transfer gave conflicting accounts about the status of the negotiation.

Howard Brown had been the recipient of the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study grant, a financial award for HIV/AIDS research provided by the National Institutes of Health, for 26 years. For most of that time, NU worked in tandem with the health center as a subcontractor to the grant.

An investigation of the study by the NIH last year resulted in an ousting of CEO Michael Cook and CFO Mark Joslyn and led Howard Brown to voluntarily give up its leadership of the grant to NU.

That maintained Howard Brown’s intimate involvement in the research process but left the organization with limited financial options.

“It’s worth noting that this is a financial issue that has had no effect on research,” Elliott said. “Howard Brown is still working on the project, only now as a subcontractor.”

The MACS grant has resulted in a number of HIV/AIDS-related breakthroughs, most recently regarding the cause of frailty among HIV patients and the aging of T cells, according to its website.

Elliott said ongoing legal issues prevented him from disclosing any further information.

Howard Brown quickly restructured after the scandal, naming Chief Development Officer Paul Fairchild an interim COO before announcing a fresh start with new CEO Jamal Edwards. In November, the group asked for $500,000 in 50 days from private donors in what they called a “Lifeline Appeal.” They also announced a “Responsible Transition” plan in early December.

“Throughout the difficult past year, the Board’s sole interest has been to stabilize the organization, make necessary changes and take appropriate actions in response to the challenges facing the organization,” previous Board Chair Mark Andrews wrote in a news release.

Beyond the MACS grant research, Howard Brown feels a strong connection to the NU community, said Director of Development Bryant Dunbar, citing donations from Dance Marathon and projects with the Kellogg School of Management.

“We’ve had a number of Northwestern students on staff even,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar said Howard Brown was pleased by the response from donors, which include sponsorships by corporations Walgreens and Merrill Lynch.

“We will look to sustain the wonderful momentum we’ve developed in our community,” Dunbar said.

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