Last week, the new chair of Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s board of directors pledged the state-funded center to “an unprecedented … level of transparency and accountability,” after the board voted to make public a critical report it has kept secret for over a year.
And yet the board took the vote in executive session — a proceeding closed to the public. When asked why discussion of the matter and the vote were hidden from public view, Leecia Eve, the new board chair, told The Buffalo News, “No particular reason.”
That’s what continues to pass for “transparency” at Roswell Park.
Even the method by which the report was published demonstrates a grudging acquiescence to openness. One must go to the page on Roswell Park’s website dedicated to diversity matters, scroll to the bottom, and find a video message from the institute’s new chief diversity officer, Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney. The report is embedded at the end of the video.
Nothing on the page indicates it is there. To read the report, you must know that it exists and where to find it.
The 43-page investigation by the Philadelphia law firm Cozen O’Connor examines what its authors describe as Roswell Park’s “significant and pervasive” issues with race and gender discrimination. The firm concluded those issues — including “a lack of transparency” in the handling of discrimination complaints — “have corroded Roswell Park’s historic reputation” nationally and among its own staff.
Roswell Park and its CEO, Dr. Candace Johnson, have stonewalled Investigative Post’s months-long effort to obtain the report under state Freedom of Information Law.
Eve refused to respond to Investigative Post’s inquiries about the report when first appointed board chair in May by Gov. Kathy Hochul. A Roswell Park spokesperson said on Eve’s behalf that the chair would not discuss “an internal privileged document.”
As for “accountability,” Rodriguez-Dabney told The Buffalo News she believed the institution deserved credit for commissioning the Cozen O’Connor report in the first place. Doing so indicated the cancer center took diversity concerns seriously, she said.
“I’m not quite sure that I can name any other organization, locally, that’s done the same,” Rodriguez-Dabney told The News.
And yet Roswell Park’s staff continues to undermine the Cozen O’Connor report and its conclusions, as they have been doing since it was first presented to the board last July.
In a statement to our partners at WGRZ, Roswell Park wrote, “What’s been reported so far is dangerously skewed and inaccurate, and we look forward to providing crucial facts and context now that we have the opportunity to respond.”
At first, WGRZ took that as a criticism of the station’s coverage of the report. In fact, the criticism was directed at the report itself, according to Roswell Park. The “crucial facts and context” have not been released.
Over the past year and half, Roswell Park has been stubbornly opaque and unresponsive to inquiries from Investigative Post on a number of matters, ranging from the numerous discrimination lawsuits filed against the center to its financial ties to sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who until last year was a big donor to Roswell Park’s foundation and invested in several for-profit companies affiliated with the cancer center.
Roswell Park has refused interview requests at every turn. When it has responded to inquiries, it has issued brief statements that largely ignore or dismiss the questions posed.
The cancer center has kept the Cozen O’Connor report especially close.
As Investigative Post was first to report, the study was commissioned by the board’s Diversity Committee in 2021, as the number of complaints and lawsuits alleging race and gender discrimination at Roswell Park continued to mount. It cost $214,474, according to state procurement reports. The report was delivered to the board last July.
Board members were not provided physical or digital copies of the report: They had to log in to a secure site to view it.
Two attorneys from the local law firm Hodgson Russ were invited to a subsequent board meeting to critique the report and its findings. The two spent more than an hour telling board members “why the Cozen investigation report was defective,” according to a letter signed by five board members who objected to management’s efforts to conceal and undermine the study.
Eve was among the dissenters, as were the other three Black members of the board. The fifth board member was attorney Steve Weiss, who is white.
The dissenters’ letter — also reported first by Investigative Post — said those efforts “created an atmosphere of retaliation and lack of trust,” phrases the Cozen O’Connor report also uses to describe Roswell Park’s institutional culture.
When Investigative Post first learned of the existence of the report, we asked for a copy. Roswell Park said no, calling it “attorney-client work product.” We filed a request for the report under state Freedom of Information Law, as did The Buffalo News. Roswell Park again refused to provide a copy. We appealed that decision to Johnson, Roswell’s CEO, to whom the five dissenting board members had addressed their letter last summer. Unsurprisingly, Johnson — who made nearly $1.9 million last year, thanks to a $672,000 bonus, and was just granted a contract extension — would not budge.
“In your appeal, you commented that the attorney/client privilege does not apply to the report’s investigation and findings of fact,” Johnson wrote. “However, this entire report is, by its nature, an attorney client work product … It is inherently a document that only an attorney can prepare, with knowledge of all of the applicable laws, rules, regulations, etc. that apply to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Investigative Post also sought a copy of the report from the state Department of Health and from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office.
After some delay, the Department of Health told us they didn’t have a copy.
The governor’s office, on the other hand, kept kicking the can down the road, asking four times for more time to ascertain whether they had a copy of the report. In mid-July, we filed an appeal, arguing that the delays constituted a “constructive denial” of the request.
On July 28, the governor’s appeals officer upheld our appeal, but also granted the governor’s office the delay it requested. That ruling runs contrary to state law, which states that an appeals officer must either uphold and explain a denial of records sought or turn them over.
“I understand the arguments that you’re raising,” the governor’s appeals officer said in a phone conversation on July 31, “but the determination is self-contained. I’m not in a position to be able to talk to you about the case.”
Three days later, Roswell Park’s board voted to release the report.
Attorney Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, thinks that the board’s decision to do so in executive session is suspect.
“In my opinion, discussions regarding diversity and discrimination should be transparent and occur in public,” Wolf told Investigative Post.
To access the report, one must open up a three-minute video statement by Rodriguez-Dabney, the former Buffalo deputy mayor who was hired in May as Roswell’s new chief diversity officer. The format makes it difficult to scroll through and read. It can’t be downloaded without opening up the coding for the web page and stripping out the document.
Which is how we are able to present it here, as a downloadable PDF:
Cozen O’Connor’s investigators interviewed 14 current and former Roswell Park staff members, including Johnson. They reviewed court cases and “thousands of pages” of internal documents.
They found a culture in which certain senior medical and administrative staff were considered “untouchables,” no matter what allegations of misconduct were leveled against them.
They described “an ineffectual patchwork quilt” of policies and procedures for reporting harassment and racial or gender bias that those interviewed considered “symptomatic of a lack of commitment by Roswell Park’s leadership to meaningfully confront issues of discrimination.”
“So significant and pervasive are the diversity and racial discrimination issues at Roswell Park that we cannot limit our recommendations to line edits to the existing policies and procedures of the institution,” the report’s authors concluded.
“Rather, a top-down significant structural change in the handling of these issues is necessary in order to restore community confidence in racial and gender relations within the organization and in the handling of allegations of discrimination in the workplace.”
The evening after the report was released, the governor’s office formally denied Investigative Post’s request for a copy of the report, directing us to Rodriguez-Dabney’s video statement.
It’s not just the treatment of the Cozen O’Connor report that casts doubt on Roswell’s commitment to transparency. Annie Deck-Miller, Roswell’s director of public relations — with a base salary of $102,000 in 2022, according to a filing with the state Authorities Budget Office — has ignored Investigative Post’s questions on various matters since February. Except once, in May, when she responded to an inquiry about the Cozen O’Connor sent directly to Eve, whom the governor had just named Roswell’s interim board chair.
(The question: Would Eve, as new interim board chair and a signatory to the dissenters’ letter last summer, consider releasing the Cozen O’Connor report to the public? Deck-Miller’s answer on Eve’s behalf: “I’m following up on your inquiry to Leecia Eve. Roswell Park will not divulge information about an internal privileged document.”)
Roswell Park board meetings routinely move into executive session to discuss legal and personnel matters, where state law permits such discretion. But the board also goes into executive session to discuss matters the public has a right to know about, such as the state-funded cancer center’s real estate transactions and other investments.
Wolf, of the New York Coalition for Open Government, said state law permits executive sessions in “very specific and limited circumstances.” Real estate transactions and other investments are covered “only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof,” according to state law.
State law also requires that when a public institution votes in an executive session, it must publish minutes from that executive session within a week. That means Roswell Park must publish the minutes of its vote on the Cozen O’Connor report on its website by this Thursday.
But don’t expect those minutes to shed much light on last week’s proceedings. Here’s an example what what the minutes from a June 20 executive session of Roswell Park’s board look like:
As you see, most of the document is redacted.
Transparency, Roswell style.