Miami-Dade County

Why did Wolfsonian boss mysteriously leave? Workers say they were psychologically tortured

For years, Florida International University’s Wolfsonian Museum was viewed as a hip up-and-comer in South Florida’s arts scene. And museum director Cathy Leff was the charismatic visionary in charge of it all.

But now, as Leff steps down under mysterious circumstances, an alternate narrative has emerged. It comes from numerous former employees who say working at the Wolfsonian was akin to being trapped in a psychological torture chamber. And Leff, they say, was the one inflicting the emotional pain.

Could it be true?

“If you read my last performance review… it was a really good performance review,” Leff said in a recent interview, while insisting that her decision to leave the museum was entirely voluntary. Leff said she was “not aware” of having ever belittled or bullied her 55-member staff — even though an internal FIU investigation found evidence of exactly that.

Although she’s leaving the museum, Leff is staying on as an FIU senior fellow for 18 months — at her full $188,190 salary. University officials say Leff improved her conduct after the HR investigation, which concluded in 2011. Plus, FIU says, Leff’s knowledge gained from leading the Wolfsonian for 17 years will make her a valuable asset.

In email records, one museum board member described Leff’s new fellowship job as a “golden parachute.” A national search is planned for a new museum director.

The Wolfsonian’s roughly 120,000 objects span the period of 1885 to 1945, and include furniture, industrial-design objects, ceramics and rare books. Leff’s last day in charge was April 1.

In discussing her track record, Leff said the main driver of employee frustration was the museum’s pay scale, which typically paid its staff much less than other similar institutions.

The pay inequities left staff feeling “very grumpy,” Leff said, adding that she worked to boost employee salaries before stepping down.

FIU’s own human resources documents, however, tell a different story. Records show that an internal investigation was launched in 2010 after employees complained of a “hostile work environment.” Leff would insult employees in front of everyone, the employees said, with comments such as “how stupid are you?” and “doesn’t your staff member have a brain?”

The allegations against Leff were substantiated, wrote Employee and Labor Relations director Joann Cuesta-Gomez in late 2010, in part because other university employees (who didn’t work at the museum) had witnessed Leff’s “inappropriate behavior.”

At that point, the university suggested Leff work with a professional coach. She agreed to do so.

But when the HR department followed up the next year, it found that Leff had stopped meeting with her coach and “evidence shows that things, have, in fact, worsened.” According to the investigative file, the new set of complaints from employees included:

“Afraid to come to work because not knowing Cathy’s state of mind.”

“Feeling ill Sunday night in anticipation to coming to work on Monday.”

“Described Cathy as a bully, aggressive and hostile.”

“The director is smart and lies well and abuses cleverly.”

The university’s HR staff concluded their follow-up report with two recommendations: either Leff should be transferred to a position where she didn’t supervise anyone, or she should be fired.

That recommendation came more than two and a half years ago, but it was only in recent months that Leff and the university administation agreed that she would be resigning her position. FIU says Leff is not being forced out, and is not being punished for any wrongdoing.

Privately, some former museum employees say they feel betrayed by the university’s years of inaction, and they suspect FIU administrators did not remove Leff earlier because of her close ties to Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. — the wealthy collector who started the museum.

Leff’s close relationship with Wolfson goes back decades, and Leff describes Wolfson as a “mentor.” Prior to becoming director of the museum in 1996, Leff was a vice president in Wolfson’s real estate/investment firm for more than eight years. Leff became head of the museum despite having no prior experience — a job she landed when Wolfson was still the owner.

Leff stayed at the helm a year later when Wolfson donated his collection — then valued at $75 million — to the university. In the years since, Wolfson has continued to donate items to FIU, including some 25,000 objects that were given to the museum last year.

FIU Provost Douglas Wartzok insisted that keeping donors such as Wolfson happy played no role in evaluating Leff’s job performance. As Leff’s direct superior, Wartzok acknowledged he was aware of the employee complaints at the museum, but he said Leff had shown improvement in her leadership following the HR investigations.

That improvement, Wartzok said, prompted him to keep Leff in charge.

“It was not any fear of external factors or influential people in the community that would dictate how we would handle a matter like that,” Wartzok said.

Wolfson could not be reached for comment.

The museum’s board, which functions in an advisory role, also includes many prominent, wealthy individuals — the type of folks whom universities depend on for philanthropic donations. Leff’s departure appears to have upset at least some members of the board — so much so that, last month, the board pressed FIU leaders to do a better job of including them when big decisions are made. The situation was tense enough that FIU President Mark Rosenberg made a personal appearance.

“I know how concerned you are, I respect your concerns,” Rosenberg told them.

Public records show that board member Anita Herrick reacted furiously when Leff announced her plans to resign in a mass e-mail sent several months ago.

“I am really pissed,” Herrick wrote back. “You are prob. right to take the opportunity to exit with a ‘golden parachute’ as you will certainly land on your feet. But the relationship of the Wolfsonian and FIU going forward is under a very dark cloud, I would say — not sure it will stick?”

Herrick then took aim at FIU’s administration: “Provost Wartzok seems to be eating humble pie, but not half enough: OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”

Reached by phone, Herrick declined to elaborate on her e-mail, which she said had been “personal” in nature. Herrick said her relationship with the museum is chiefly through Wolfson, whom she has known for 45 years.

FIU announced last month that Provost Wartzok is stepping down this summer after five years as the university’s second-in-command. Wartzok said he always intended to leave after five years, and his departure had nothing to do with Herrick’s e-mail, or the museum in general.

“There’s absolutely no connection,” he said.

Herrick, who has been on the board for at least a decade, said she never heard about the employee complaints outlined in FIU’s HR investigation. Herrick praised Leff as a “wonderful” and “very, very creative” museum director.

There have certainly been some high points during Leff’s tenure. In 2005, the New York Times hailed the Wolfsonian as “one of America's most remarkable museums.” Two years ago, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded the museum a $5 million grant to enhance its online offerings.

Through its unusual exhibitions and its sometimes-lavish parties, the Wolfsonian gained a reputation as both fun and eclectic.

“It’s not stuffy,” Leff said. “But there’s a lot of stuff.”

In Leff’s case, there’s also been a lot of travel. Records show that her schedule as museum director included 26 trips in the past two years — more than one per month. New York City was the most-frequent destination, but there were also trips to London, Paris, and Genoa, Italy.

Leff said the travel was typically related to either museum fundraising or “international projects.”

“We have donors in Turkey,” Leff said. “We have donors all over.”

There were also expensive meals — the full extent of which is difficult to nail down. At least some of those meals were paid for by FIU’s private fundraising foundation, which is exempt from public-records laws.

Records from Leff’s university credit card show expenses ranging from a $5 coffee purchase to a $202.41 bill from Miami Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab to a $529.66 meal at New York City’s Keen’s Steakhouse.

Leff said that steakhouse bill, from 2012, involved a meal that included Wolfson and representatives from New York’s Rubin Museum of Art. It was Wolfson who had suggested the restaurant, she said.

Generally speaking, Leff said she was careful when spending taxpayer dollars. When traveling, Leff said she would often avoid hotels and instead would stay with friends.

Looking back at her 17 years in charge, Leff recalled how the Wolfsonian’s unconventional collection was initially derided as “junk” by some. Today, she said, it is “one of the most highly regarded research centers, not only in the United States, but abroad.”

Getting there required long hours and sometimes-stressful working conditions, Leff said. But she was confident that most museum employees viewed their contributions as “well worth it.”

“Of course, there’s going to be a lot of stuff along the way that’s imperfect,” Leff said. “For me, the greatest satisfaction will be seeing that it goes on.”