Monday, June 18, 2018

Turmoil roils Gulfcoast Legal Services

When Gulfcoast Legal Services looked for a new executive director, one candidate had the wow factor — Kathleen Mullin, a seasoned trial lawyer and TV legal analyst.

"She was very bright, very enthusiastic'' said Ramon Carrion, president of Gulfcoast's board.

Yet barely a year after hiring Mullin, Carrion joined his colleagues in a resounding vote of "no confidence.'' Mullin left her $115,000 a year job in February, the sounds of Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead playing on one staffer's cellphone.

Mullin's tenure and its rocky aftermath have roiled Gulfcoast, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit that provides free legal help on housing, immigration and other issues to low-income Tampa Bay residents. There have been firings, resignations and complaints of sex and age discrimination.

Critics blame Mullin for the turmoil. But supporters say she was only trying to prepare Gulfcoast for the challenges facing many nonprofits forced to operate more like businesses as their traditional funding sources dry up.

"Kathleen may have been a bit abrupt in some of the things she did, but they needed to be done,'' said Liz Williams, who recently retired as development director.

Mullin, 48, declined to comment for this story. She arrived at Gulfcoast in late 2012 with a resume that included teaching law, training public defenders in New York and appearing as a legal expert on Nancy Grace, The O'Reilly Factor and others.

Mullin quickly set about updating Gulfcoast's accounting system and making it easier for clients to talk to a lawyer. Live voices answered the phones and on-call lawyers met with everyone looking for help. Mullin also told employees to forget the jeans and dress more professionally.

"People seemed to think that working for a nonprofit, anything goes,'' Williams said.

One of Mullin's jobs was to raise money. Although Gulfcoast gets government grants, much of its budget comes from the Florida Bar Foundation and interest earned on trust accounts, where attorneys keep money that doesn't belong to them.

When interest rates plunged, so did the foundation's contributions — from a high of $1.4 million to the current $700,000 in a $2.4 million budget.

"The hope was that (Mullin) would be able to be a more efficient fundraiser than the fellow who proceeded her,'' said Carrion, a Clearwater lawyer. She landed some grants, but there were "rumblings'' she didn't get out in the community enough.

There were complaints, too, about what some considered Mullin's heavy-handed management style. Much of the drama revolved around Elizabeth Boyle, head of Gulfcoast's Sarasota office.

Boyle had handled high-profile cases. She also supervised as many as 25 volunteer lawyers at a time.

Even though volunteers work for free, organizations that give money to Gulfcoast like to see that they are being used efficiently to supplement the paid staff. The Sarasota office was not accurately reporting the time its volunteers put in, Mullin found.

In one case, Boyle reported that a volunteer attorney worked 24 hours a day for four days straight. But in 2012, all 25 volunteers logged a total of just 23 hours for the entire year.

That "indicated a clear lapse in oversight and supervision on Ms. Boyle's part,'' Mullin wrote to the Florida Bar.

Boyle told the Tampa Bay Times it had been common to credit volunteers for time on call, not just hours worked. Discrepancies resulted from volunteers not having access to a computerized time management system, she said.

"I don't think Ms. Mullin understood a lot of things about the way the (volunteer) program ran,'' Boyle said.

Tensions came to a head in May 2013 when Mullin ordered Boyle to drop the case of a young quadriplegic who had sought Gulfcoast's help in finding long-term care. Her plight, while unfortunate, didn't qualify her for assistance under any of Gulfcoast's programs, Mullin said.

When Boyle refused to drop the case, Mullin put her on paid leave and ordered her not to attend a court hearing on the matter. When Boyle went to court anyway, Mullin fired her.

Boyle, 53, filed an age discrimination complaint. Her husband, Bradenton police Chief Mike Radzilowski, suggested that local governments stop funding Gulfcoast "if this is how (it) is going to provide legal aid to our disabled.''

The Sarasota County Commission ended its $89,000 annual contribution.

Gulfcoast's board, though, agreed Boyle had "overstepped herself'' and that Mullin was justified in firing her, Carrion said.

But more staffers left, including a paralegal who had been helping immigrants in a Tampa office that closed. He abandoned nearly 100 clients rather than move to the Clearwater office as Mullin instructed.

"It was wrong for him to walk away,'' Carrion said, "but it was just one thing after another.''

In the midst of the turmoil, Gulfcoast employees voted 19 to 3 to form a union.

"It was really a rebuff to Kathleen,'' Carrion said. "She was telling us the union was never going to pass, everybody was happy, then this lopsided vote comes in.''

On Feb. 12, the board decided it had lost confidence in Mullin. She left that day.

Michael Raposa, executive director of St. Vincent De Paul in south Pinellas, was sorry to see her go. He praised her "incredible passion'' for helping the homeless.

With Mullin's departure, Williams, the former development director, wonders if Gulfcoast is reverting to its "old culture.'' A live voice no longer answers the phones. Some offices no longer have lawyers on call.

Because of budget cuts, Gulfcoast now has a staff of 32, including 15 paid lawyers, down from 17 last year. It expects to help about 2,000 people this year compared with 4,051 in 2012.

Meanwhile, unionized Gulfcoast employees will enjoy benefits most of their low-income clients can only dream about: 13 paid holidays and up to eight weeks of annual paid leave.

Last month, Gulfcoast's board agreed to a confidential settlement with Boyle. Still pending is a discrimination complaint by lawyer Christine Allamanno, a Mullin supporter who resigned soon after Mullin left.

Allamanno, 51, said the board appointed a man, John Dubrule, as interim executive director without considering any women. And several younger staffers who had announced their resignations were asked to stay while older ones were not.

Despite continued fallout from Mullin's tenure, Carrion, the board president, said "things seem to be moving along very well.''

Gulfcoast is considering whether to hire a full-time fundraiser, he said, because "that's a unique specialty.'' But there are no plans now to replace Dubrule.

That doesn't surprise Allamanno, given what happened to Mullin.

"I think it was all about the fact that she was a woman coming in. If she had been a man doing some of the things she did, she would still be employed today, I really do believe.''

Susan Martin can be contacted at [email protected]

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