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AIDS agency to Broward commissioners: ‘We made a terrible mistake’

The woes of Broward County’s largest HIV center, Broward House, continued Tuesday as members of the County Commission — which is a significant funder — expressed outrage that an accused pedophile had been put in charge of an agency that cares for children.

Broward County contributes $400,000 in general revenue dollars to Broward House, unrestricted funds over which the county has direct control, said Commissioner Lois Wexler, a former school board member who requested the discussion at a regular commission meeting Tuesday morning.

“Not only have I lost confidence” in Broward House, Wexler said, “but many folks in the community have lost confidence...A cloud hangs over you that needs to move,” Wexler added.

The controversy began on Nov. 3, when The Miami Herald reported that members of the Broward House board had twice promoted Michael McGuigan — naming him chief executive officer in September — long after McGuigan had repeatedly been linked to allegations he sexually abused or made improper advances toward children. Earlier this year, a Broward judge stripped McGuigan of parental rights over a 6-year-old he adopted, after McGuigan agreed not to fight the accusations of state child welfare authorities.

Last week, Ron Book, one of the state’s most powerful lobbyists, whose now-adult daughter is a survivor of childhood sex abuse, called on Broward House funders and children’s advocates to demand that McGuigan be suspended or removed.

On Friday, the Broward House board of directors met at an undisclosed private home to discuss McGuigan’s future, and accepted his immediate resignation. But shortly after the private meeting ended, board President Mark Budwig expressed sympathy for McGuigan, calling McGuigan’s ouster “unfortunate” and telling a Miami Herald reporter the CEO did “not deserve to have to resign.”

Book called Budwig’s comments “an outrage” at Tuesday’s meeting, and asked board members to use their power of the purse strings to force changes at the county’s oldest and largest HIV service agency, which employs 100 people.

“That’s a problem,” Book said. “It ought to be a problem for you, and it ought to be a problem for the community. You’re a funder.”

The vice president of Broward House’s board, who is the agency’s founder, apparently agreed. Susan Telli spoke on behalf of the group, which serves about 6,000 people with HIV or substance abuse problems, and mostly apologized.

“I admit we made a terrible mistake,” Telli said. “It’s been resolved; we resolved it on Friday.”

Telli agreed to the commission’s demand that board members hold a “retreat” or meeting to, as Wexler put it, “develop a strategy to make sure these things don’t happen again.”

As Budwig did five days earlier, Telli blamed the scandal on the Broward House CEO whose departure led to McGuigan’s promotion: Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo. Telli said Castillo had told her in confidence about the allegations swirling around McGuigan, but he also assured her “there was no problem; the allegations were unfounded.”

Castillo refused repeatedly to discuss McGuigan with a reporter Friday. But Saturday morning, he commented on The Herald’s website, blaming the controversy on two state agencies — the Department of Children & Families and the Agency for Health Care Administration — which, he said, told him “no action was required until and unless charges were brought, and even then, [the] proper response would depend on the nature of the charge brought.”

Both state agencies say they are looking into Castillo’s claims.

Commissioner Kristin Jacobs called Broward House’s failure to act for two years “shocking.”

Jacobs said the allegations surrounding McGuigan were a red flag that “was not just waving in your face, but draped over your head. You need to get out and do something long before he moves up the ladder.”

Particularly “alarming,” Jacobs said, was the attitude of board members that “Oh, we knew about it, but they were only allegations, and we didn’t know if they were real or not. There wasn’t even an investigation.”

One commissioner, Stacy Ritter, said commissioners did not have the authority to tell groups they fund who they can hire and fire. Though, as CEO, McGuigan had unfettered access to the HIV agency and its clients — some of whom are children — Ritter said she was unconcerned because he wasn’t a “caseworker.”

“Quite frankly,” Ritter said, “I’m not sure why we’re discussing it.”