The board of directors of Miami-based gay-rights group SAVE has placed its executive director on paid leave amid an inquiry into why, during the group’s recent Pride gala, he praised four men accused of attacking a gay couple on South Beach.
“Over the past 48 hours, much has transpired regarding the events that unfolded during the SAVE Champions of Equality Gala on June 14, 2019. We have fielded many calls from the community regarding the details of that night and are working diligently to provide answers,” the SAVE board said in a statement released to the Miami Herald.
“In the interest of being able to best and most thoroughly respond to these concerns, we have placed Executive Director Tony Lima on paid administrative leave while we conduct an objective and thorough review of the events that took place.”
SAVE’s directors and Lima, who has run the prominent LGBTQ advocacy non-profit since 2013, have been heavily criticized since the South Florida Gay News reported Wednesday that Juan Carlos Lopez, Luis Alonso Piovet, Adonis Diaz and Pablo Reinaldo Romo-Figueroa attended the organization’s gala. Lima reportedly announced that the men had been “wrongly accused.”
The men were arrested in the attack last year on Rene Chalarca and Dmitry Logunov while the couple walked hand in hand along the street shortly after the conclusion of a Miami Beach Pride parade. The suspects were charged last year under Florida’s hate-crime enhancement law, and have pleaded not guilty.
Police said Lopez and his companions called the victims maricones — an anti-gay slur in Spanish — before repeatedly punching the two gay men in the face. The punches briefly knocked out Logunov. A witness to the attack, Helmut Muller, chased the men and was also beaten up.
According to Lima, about six weeks ago, the gay parents of one of the accused men called the organization to ask about how the suspects could become involved with the organization. He said all four suspects had recently volunteered with the organization, and each purchased tickets to the group’s gala, either themselves or through their parents.
The board on Friday apologized and announced that they would investigate how and why the men attended. On Sunday, SAVE told the Herald that Lima had been suspended with pay.
“On behalf of the board, we recognize we lacked the proper processes in place to best ensure this type of incident never occurs,” the board said in its statement. “We deeply regret not having taken more precaution to protect the community accordingly and are committed not only to finding answers, but effectively securing the safety and well-being of the LGBTQ+ population in South Florida as we move forward.”
Board members attended the gala, but according to SAVE were not aware of the men’s attendance prior to the event. Lima, who could not be reached by text Sunday, said in a recorded apology posted to his Facebook page that he didn’t consult with the board about acknowledging the suspects to the audience. He also said he didn’t recall saying that the men were “wrongly accused,” though he didn’t deny saying it.
“Towards the end of the program, I welcomed them into the space and said that it’s good that they’re trying to support the community and trying to really rehabilitate themselves and really be able to give back to a community that they’d done harm to,” Lima said in his recorded apology. “That was my mistake. I did that on my own. I didn’t check in with my board, or anything like that.”
Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.