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Head of Pioneering Shanti Project in San Francisco Quits

Times Staff Writer

The head of the Shanti Project, a pioneering and widely emulated organization that provides emotional and practical support to people with AIDS, has quit amid accusations that he mismanaged the $3-million-a-year agency, directors of the group said Thursday.

Shanti agreed to pay Jim Geary, executive director of Shanti since 1982, $73,000--a year’s pay--thus averting a threatened court battle that could have undermined what is a cornerstone in this city’s fight against the AIDS epidemic. A committee of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors had recommended that Geary be fired.

“There’s some sadness mixed with some relief. Now, we’re going to be able to move on to our real purpose--helping people with AIDS,” said Doug Holloway, a Shanti board member who took the lead in negotiating the settlement.

In 1982, Geary, a masseur by training, was the only staff member of what then was an almost defunct peer counseling group for terminally ill people in Berkeley. With the growth of the AIDS epidemic and with Geary’s drive, Shanti soon became a nationally renowned agency with a $3-million annual budget, a paid staff of 70 and hundreds of volunteers who help as many as 4,500 people with AIDS and their friends and family each year.

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In recent months, however, Shanti employees became disenchanted with Geary, accusing him of hiring friends and driving out those who disagreed with him. There were also allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination against women and minorities.

“Despite the untruths of most of what has been reported,” Geary said in a statement, “I feel that in order for Shanti to continue to flourish, it needs to be able to put its focus on client services and not on the defense of any one individual.”

“Not a single one of the charges had been substantiated--no substantiation of nepotism, cultism, financial mismanagement. Shanti came up 100% clean,” said Paul Melbostad, Geary’s lawyer. Geary will be seeking a similar position in another organization, Melbostad said.

The San Francisco Human Rights Commission did chastise Shanti in a report issued in August for failing to promote women and minorities, and Shanti then agreed to an affirmative action plan.

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The city Health Commission, reacting to the problems, cut off Shanti’s funds early this year, but later restored the money for a six-month probationary period to give the group a chance to solve its problems.

Shanti receives about one-third of its budget from the city, including $470,000 for mental health services, and another $614,000 for programs that provide such services as housing and house cleaning.

For most of Geary’s tenure, Shanti received nothing but praise from City Hall and health care professionals. It became one of the premier volunteer organizations that sprang from the gay community here to fight the disease, which already has claimed more than 3,200 lives here. Such groups have saved the city millions of dollars by providing free counseling and other services, ranging from meals to housing.

Shanti--a Sanskrit word for “inner peace"--also spread its technique of peer counseling to groups from Juneau, Alaska, to Paris. Agencies modeled after Shanti opened in cities throughout the country, including Los Angeles.

But as details of Shanti’s problems surfaced, executives at other AIDS groups feared that there would be a drop in donations to them. Donations to Shanti here were down $25,000 in September over the same month a year ago, and the number of volunteers in recent training classes was off by 30%, Holloway said.

Holloway, a Wells Fargo Bank executive who joined Shanti’s board in June, attributed the problems to an inability of Shanti management to cope with its rapid growth, an expansion made necessary by the increasing number of people who have come down with the disease here.

“It went from a very small group overnight. All the weaknesses became manifest very soon,” Holloway said.


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