CHELSEA — Kelsey Louie, the new CEO of AIDS nonprofit Gay Men's Health Crisis, was forced to resign from an LGBT running club after being accused of trying to rig a board election there and then lying about it, according to documents and sources.
Louie took over GMHC last week and vowed to reform and revive the embattled organization following financial struggles that forced it to cut its staff and programs.
But some LGBT advocates are raising concerns about whether Louie is the right person to overhaul the organization, in light of a little-known 2012 scandal in which he was accused of trying to swing a board election at Front Runners New York, a gay running club.
At the time, Louie was head coach at Front Runners, a part-time paid position he held while also working full-time as chief program officer at the nonprofit Harlem United, an AIDS organization.
According to court documents, Louie tried to swing a Front Runners board election in favor of a candidate who worked with him at Harlem United as a way to ensure the running club would continue to raise funds for Harlem United.
Louie was accused of registering as many as 54 people as new members of Front Runners without their permission, so that they could "vote" for Louie's candidate in the online election, according to a lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court in December 2012.
Louie denied wrongdoing at the time, but agreed to resign after a subpoena revealed that 46 of the new members had been registered from his home computer, according to documents and sources. The rest all came from a second computer.
Through a GMHC spokesman, Louie declined to be interviewed about the incident.
Mickey Rolfe, president of GMHC's board, said the organization stands behind Louie.
"We are very happy with our decision to bring Kelsey on board at GMHC," Rolfe said in a statement. "We have no doubts about his integrity and that he will bring strong leadership to GMHC, just as he did in his seven years at Harlem United."
Louie had a long history with Front Runners, which has a membership of roughly 800 athletes, serving as its board president in 2005 and 2006 before becoming head coach.
Front Runners funneled tens of thousands each year to Harlem United with the help of Louie and other people who were members of both organizations.
Through an unofficial partnership between Front Runners and Harlem United, Front Runners members who ran races to raise funds were encouraged to run with Harlem United's team. For the New York City Marathon, those who joined Team Harlem United had to raise a minimum of $3,000 each for the organization, according to Harlem United's website. Board members with connections to Harlem United hoped to cement that into a formal partnership between the two organizations.
But in 2012, some Front Runners members began to question the partnership, saying there was a conflict of interest with Front Runners board members who worked for Harlem United making decisions about issues that would make the organization more money.
One of those critics was David Lin, men's vice president at Front Runners, who decided to run for board president in late 2012, sources said.
In response, Rachel Cutler, Harlem United's director of administration, began a campaign against Lin to keep the partnership intact.
On Oct. 31, 2012 — hours before the deadline to register as a Front Runners member in time for the early December vote — Front Runners received a flood of 54 applications online, according to documents.
Of those, 46 applications came from the same computer and had the same billing information: a prepaid credit card under the name "Will Smith," according to sources within the organization.
The last-minute applicants included seven managers at Harlem United, along with some homeless Harlem United clients, according to an internal audit done by Front Runners and obtained by DNAinfo New York and sources familiar with the investigation. Other names appeared to have been invented, sources said.
"We had no idea who they were," said a member of the club involved in the investigation. "They never came out to run."
The 46 new members all signed up using a prepaid credit card under the name "Will Smith" and used the same address: 41 E. 11th St., where AIDS Service Center NYC, another nonprofit, is located.
Lin contacted Front Runners' then-president Megan Coryat to ask about the influx and Coryat told him the new members were homeless AIDS patients whose names had been collected by the AIDS Service Center, according to sources and emails obtained by DNAinfo.
However, on Nov. 6, 2012, AIDS Service Center CEO Sharen Duke wrote an email to members of Front Runners' board saying she knew nothing about the influx — and her organization couldn't have been involved because its office had no power on Oct. 31 due to Hurricane Sandy.
"[W]e were shocked and confused to learn that ASCNYC is being credited by [Front Runners] for recruiting 50+ new members to the club last week," Duke wrote.
Front Runners launched an internal audit ahead of the December election based on concerns about the registration "irregularities." A five-member committee investigated the incident, questioning Louie, who said he knew nothing about the new members, according to emails obtained by DNAinfo New York.
The committee issued a report at the beginning of December, just after the election, recommending that the vote be thrown out. The election results were never shared outside of the organization's elections officers.
Lin filed a lawsuit against Front Runners Dec. 3 in state Supreme Court, saying he had been defrauded out of a fair shot at the board presidency.
As part of the lawsuit, Lin won a subpoena for information identifying the owner of the computer that registered 46 of the new members. Verizon traced that computer's IP address to Louie's home, according to court documents and a copy of the Verizon subpoena obtained by DNAinfo.
On Dec. 17, Lin revealed the subpoena identifying Louie as the person who signed up the "fraudulent" members, leading to Louie's resignation on Dec. 19 — the same date Lin dropped the lawsuit, court records show.
Jason Rudman, chairman of the Front Runners audit committee, wrote in a Dec. 19 email to members that he was "distressed" that Louie had "flatly denied having any knowledge connected to the registrations in question," even though they were all entered in on his computer.
In a separate statement on the same day, Coryat, who was still president of the club, announced Louie's resignation.
"New information has been brought to light that shows certain irrefutable irregularities, and connections to Harlem United, with regard to the new member registrants from October that the board finds very unsettling and has resulted in Kelsey's resignation," she wrote.
Louie issued a statement about his love for the organization.
"I would like to extend a public and profound apology to Megan and the rest of the board, the members of the Audit Committee, and the membership for any hardship and ill feelings I may have directly or indirectly caused by trying to bring Front Runners and Harlem United closer together," he wrote to Front Runners members in the club's Dec. 19 newsletter. "It was never my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but I can now understand how people saw conflicts of interest."
Steve Bussey, CEO of Harlem United, declined to comment.
Lin ran unopposed in a second board election in January 2013 and became the club's president.
“I’m genuinely happy for Kelsey and I wish him the best of luck in his appointment [to GMHC]," Lin, who remains president of the club, told DNAinfo New York.
News of the accusations against Louie rocked GMHC clients, including Manny Rivera, who heads the Consumer Advisory Board, which represents people who use the organization's services.
"The allegations are extremely concerning on several levels, but in particular the involvement of clients in this situation, without their knowledge or informed consent, is especially troubling," Rivera said.
In an unrelated interview with DNAinfo New York after his appointment as CEO, Louie pledged to spur GMHC to end the AIDS epidemic in New York state and promised to have an honest dialogue with the organization's clients.
"I need to listen to what people have to say, listen to what people have already said. I am committed to the idea of listening to what people need and want," Louie said. "I do see myself as a public servant and I really look forward to having a bigger impact on as many people as possible."