Roswell’s “unacceptable” response to racism
Last August, five members of Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s board of directors — including all four Black members — described management’s efforts to address the center’s “history and sentiment of institutional racism” as “unacceptable.”
One of the board directors, in a statement to Investigative Post, described that history as “a cancer.”
In a letter addressed to Dr. Candace Johnson, Roswell’s president and CEO, and Michael Joseph, the board chair, the five board members objected to management’s response to a report examining “diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity” at the center.
The report was commissioned by the Roswell board’s Diversity Committee. With the board’s approval, the committee hired the Philadelphia law firm Cozen O’Connor in February 2021 to conduct “a review of Roswell Park Policies & Procedures regarding diversity and inclusion and a review of past complaints involving discrimination issues,” according to board minutes.
Investigative Post reported in February on the latest such complaint, one of at least 15 federal lawsuits filed over the past eight years alleging race and gender discrimination at Roswell. In one lawsuit, a doctor claimed his supervisor dismissed him as “a token black” on Roswell’s medical staff. In another, a doctor claimed her male supervisors accused her of being “emotional” when she disagreed with them on diagnoses and patient care.
Roswell paid Cozen O’Connor $214,474, according to state procurement reports.
The Cozen O’Connor report was presented at a special board session last July, two months after the May 14 massacre at Tops on Jefferson Avenue.
The meeting was held in executive session. Roswell refused to provide Investigative Post minutes of the presentation or a summary of the discussion it prompted. (“We don’t comment on our interactions with counsel,” a spokesperson for Roswell wrote in a February email.) A response from Roswell regarding our Freedom of Information request for a copy of the report is pending.
However, the letter from dissenting board members sheds some light on Cozen O’Connor’s conclusions after a year-long inquiry.
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“We believe that the Cozen investigation and resulting report correctly conveyed the long history and sentiment of institutional racism, lack of trust inside and outside of the institution, feelings of retaliation and racial inequity,” the dissenting board members wrote.
The letter also described management’s response to Cozen O’Connor’s findings as “shocking and disappointing.”
The July special board meeting was followed by another special board meeting in August, also held in executive session. That meeting was attended by attorneys Adam Perry and Charles Kaplan of the local law firm Hodgson Russ. The two attorneys were there to tell board members “why the Cozen investigation report was defective,” according to the letter.
Hodgson Russ was hired without consulting the board’s Legal Committee, “as is protocol,” according to the letter writers. Neither management’s nor Hodgson Russ’s objections were shared with the Diversity Committee or Cozen O’Connor before that August meeting.
Further, according to the letter, Roswell management and Hodgson Russ demanded Cozen O’Connor’s investigators “reveal the identities of those who spoke on condition of anonymity as well as the attorney’s notes and confidential information leading to the written report.”
“These efforts have created an atmosphere of retaliation and lack of trust, the exact opposite of what needs to take place,” the dissenting board members wrote.
Roswell did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Founded in 1898, Roswell specializes in cancer treatment and research. It became a state-funded public benefit corporation in 1999. Last year it had a payroll of nearly $330 million, according to state records. Its board directors are state appointees.
The current board roster is chaired by Joseph, president of Clover Management, a real estate development and property management company. Other board members include Kenneth Manning, a partner at Phillips Lytle, one of the region’s largest law firms; R. Buford Sears, regional president for Key Corporate and Commercial Bank; and Dennis Szefel, a strategic advisor for Delaware North Companies.
Also on the board are sisters-in-law Anne and Donna Gioia, co-founders of the Roswell Park Alliance, the charity that raises money for Roswell, and Elyse NeMoyer, an occupational therapist married to former state Appellate Division Justice Patrick NeMoyer.
The letter of dissent was signed by the two board members who are also physicians: Dr. Gregory Daniel, who started his career at Roswell, and Dr. Mary Bassett, then the commissioner of the state Department of Health. The other three authors — Leecia Eve, Gail Mitchell and Steve Weiss — are attorneys.
At the time, Daniel, Bassett, Eve and Mitchell were the only Black members of Roswell’s board. Weiss, who is white, was chair of the Diversity Committee.
Bassett has since stepped down as state health commissioner, thus relinquishing her position on Roswell Park’s board.
All five also voted against a proposed public statement on diversity and racism that was presented to the board at the end of the August session, after “we spent over an hour hearing about all of Roswell’s [diversity, inclusion and equity] efforts as well as why the Cozen report was defective,” according to the letter.
The public statement was adopted in an eight-to-five vote and is published on Roswell Park’s website.
The dissenting board members objected that the statement failed “to acknowledge Roswell’s racial past.” The statement offered no contrition, the letter writers said, apparently for fear “an apology could create liability for Roswell and the individual board members.”
According to the letter, Roswell’s plan to address the findings in the report and the long queue of discrimination lawsuits was to hire and promote more people of color. Such efforts, “while important, were not a focus of the Cozen report,” the dissenters wrote.
Rather, the Cozen O’Connor report expressed a “need to improve significantly Roswell’s processes and procedures for handling complaints about race discrimination and inappropriate behavior … including the hiring of an investigator to handle such complaints.”
Eve and Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Daniel declined to comment.
Bassett, the former health commissioner, told Investigative Post she objected to the idea that hiring more people of color was, by itself, enough to fix Roswell’s problems.
“We’ve all learned that tackling racism requires concerted change — and not simply a change in the complexion of some individuals,” Bassett said.
Weiss texted a statement to Investigative Post:
“In compliance with New York State public officers laws, I have no comment as to any matters discussed in executive session. In my opinion, Roswell Park’s racial past is a cancer and like any other cancer, until it is treated properly — in this case with transparency, contrition and humility — no number of bandages to try to cover up the wound will make it go away.”
Investigative Post identified 15 federal lawsuits in the past eight years accusing Roswell of countenancing race and gender discrimination in the workplace — and sometimes retaliating against those who called it out.
Nine of those lawsuits were settled out of court, five are ongoing, and one was resolved in Roswell’s favor.
In its annual budget reports, Roswell does not disclose the cost of settling lawsuits alleging discrimination.
“Roswell Park is involved in litigation arising in the normal course of business,” the center stated in its latest annual filing with state officials.
“After consultation with legal counsel, management estimates that these matters will be resolved without material adverse effect on Roswell Park’s future financial position, results from operations and cash flows.”
Neither the state comptroller nor the state Authorities Budget Office, which conduct some oversight of state-funded public authorities like Roswell, could provide a dollar figure for the settlements.
In 2018 alone, Roswell Park settled three federal discrimination lawsuits for undisclosed sums:
- Dr. Willie Underwood sued in 2015, claiming his department chairman referred to him as a “token black” and “an affirmative action program achievement.” He also alleged Roswell was concealing the number of complications arising from surgeries performed at the center.
- Xantipple Conerly alleged a white supervisor made “blatantly racist comments” in the office, saying, “We can all act ghetto,” in reference to Black and Hispanic employees; calling Hispanic employees “chica”; and once saying, “I’ll just go to the hood for a crack head.” Conerly claimed she suffered “swift and severe retaliation,” including a demotion, when she lodged complaints.
- Terry Kearney was the only Black registered nurse at Roswell between 2012, when she started work there, and 2017, when she filed a lawsuit alleging “racism and improper and dangerous patient care were the practice, rather than the exception, at the Institute.”
Roswell has settled at least four more federal discrimination lawsuits since 2018. In each case, the center employed outside counsel to defend itself.
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The latest lawsuit was filed in federal court in January by a former Roswell oncologist. Dr. Anne Grand’Maison alleged she was the subject of gender discrimination that compromised her ability to treat her patients and conduct research effectively. She claimed she was forced out of her job when she complained about her treatment and called attention to poor diagnostic practices at the center.
Investigative Post’s report on Grand’Maison’s lawsuit prompted Johnson, Roswell’s president and CEO, to send an email to the center’s roughly 4,000 employees.
In an attached letter, Johnson described media reports describing Roswell’s issues with race and gender discrimination as “inaccurate” and “misleading.”
She said the center denied “all allegations of wrongdoing made by [Grand’Maison] and we intend to vigorously defend against this lawsuit.”
“In due course, we will reach out to media to provide them with accurate information about our organization, to address the questions they have raised, and to point out to them where their stories have been inaccurate or misleading,” Johnson wrote.
“We are committed to transparency, accountability and accuracy, and we will do everything in our power to retain the trust of our community.”
Investigative Post first requested — and was denied — a copy of Cozen O’Connor’s report on February 14. We filed a Freedom of Information request for the report on March 17. Roswell indicated it would decide whether to honor that request by April 17.
In their letter, the dissenting board members requested that their letter “be recorded and properly noted in the board record.” There is no mention of the letter in the board’s September 2022 minutes.
That meeting took place just two days after the letter was sent to Johnson and Joseph, the board chair. The next full board meeting is this Wednesday at noon.