Pressure mounts on agency chief in alleged sex-abuse scandal

 

The board of an HIV service group in Broward will meet to discuss the future of an agency head who has been repeatedly linked to allegations of child sex abuse.

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

Under intense pressure from children’s advocates and funders, the Broward House HIV service agency has called an emergency meeting for Friday afternoon to decide the fate of the group’s CEO — a man repeatedly accused of making improper advances toward children.

On the hot seat is Michael McGuigan. The veteran administrator was promoted in September to president and chief executive officer of Broward House, which is the county’s oldest and largest HIV and AIDs service center, and serves more than 6,000 men, women and children with the AIDS virus, as well as those in need of drug treatment.

On Thursday, Broward House board members were given a harsh warning by administrators of the Florida Department of Children & Families, which provides the agency $663,762 yearly to serve 1,750 adults. The message: Suspend or remove the new leader, or the state dollars are “in immediate jeopardy,” sources told The Miami Herald.

“We have deep concerns about the change in leadership at Broward House,” said Joe Follick, DCF’s spokesman in Tallahassee. “We are considering all options to protect the public’s trust, including a full review of our contractual relationship.”

Since at least 2000, allegations involving sexual abuse or improper advances toward children have swirled around McGuigan, who was the subject of a front-page story in The Miami Herald Saturday.

In recent days, two members of the Broward House board of directors resigned as the majority of the board has refused to remove McGuigan.

Cindy Kohn, who represents the Memorial Healthcare System, resigned her post, said Kerting Baldwin, a Memorial spokeswoman. Memorial operates Memorial Regional Hospital and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, both in Hollywood, as well as other facilities in south Broward. The board member who represents Broward Health (formerly the North Broward Hospital District) also has resigned, said Sam Goren, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents the agency. Broward Health administrators also have declined to discuss McGuigan or the resignation of Charlotte Mather-Taylor, who is the director of the Ann Storck Center for disabled children, and Broward Health’s representative on the board.

McGuigan’s fate also will be discussed next Tuesday at a meeting of the Broward County Commission, which contributes to Broward House’s $11 million budget.

County Commissioner Lois Wexler, who served on the Broward School Board before being elected to the commission, said she requested the discussion, and has asked administrators whether the county has authority to withdraw federal dollars the county directs to Broward House, or any other funds. When she served on the school board, with authority over hiring and firing decisions involving those who came in contact with children, Wexler said she had a simple rule: “When in doubt, throw them out.”

“I do not approve.” Wexler said of Broward House’s actions. “Even at its best, it’s really bad judgment on the part of the board of directors.”

Broward House board members had agreed to meet Friday at their main offices in Fort Lauderdale. But by Thursday afternoon, the meeting had been moved to a “private home,” said board member Dean Trantalis, a Wilton Manors attorney and former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner. Trantalis said the meeting is not open to the public, and board members agreed not to disclose the location.

Trantalis declined to discuss McGuigan at length with a reporter Thursday, saying he preferred to first hear the thoughts of fellow board members.

He said, however, that he did not “want to replay the Sandusky episode” referring to the former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, whose sexual involvement with children was reported to high-ranking university officials but never acted upon until the scandal exploded.

“That’s why it is important for us to understand what happened, who is involved, and to take such action as is necessary to eradicate the problem from the organization,” Trantalis said.

Much of the pressure has originated with Ron Book, a powerful lobbyist who can call in markers all over the state of Florida. He has been a vocal advocate for sexually abused children since learning that his now-adult daughter, Lauren Book, had been repeatedly abused as a child by her longtime nanny. The nanny was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Book and his daughter now run Lauren’s Kids, an education and advocacy group for sexually abused children.

In a letter to the Broward House board, as well as many of the group’s funders, he called on the group to “protect [its] proud record of service” by removing or suspending McGuigan. McGuigan’s attorney has not responded to several calls from a Herald reporter.

“Do not damage the good reputation and good work of Broward House,” Book wrote in a letter sent by FedEx late Tuesday. “Do not expose yourselves and Broward House to future civil and criminal liability.”

McGuigan 53, first appeared on the radar screen of law enforcement agencies in 2000, when a teenager told Delray Beach police McGuigan invited him into his car, showed him a pornographic picture of a child, and asked him to perform sex acts. “Don’t worry,” the boy quoted McGuigan as saying. “I’m not going to hurt you.” The state attorney’s office declined to prosecute the case.

In 2009, McGuigan’s name surfaced again when 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, who had lived in McGuigan’s foster home, hanged himself about a month after leaving the home. An adult man from Massachusetts who read coverage of the boy’s death in The Herald contacted Margate police, who investigated the suicide, and claimed that McGuigan had molested him in his childhood.

Then, in February 2011, an 8-year-old boy told his caseworkers at ChildNet, Broward’s private foster care agency, that McGuigan had molested him, as well. Since then, McGuigan relinquished his foster care license, and DCF removed all children in state care from his home.

This past summer, McGuigan surrendered his right to raise a now-6-year-old boy he adopted from foster care, and a Broward judge formally terminated his parental rights.

“For me, this raises red flags,” Wexler said. “No doubt about it.”

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