Project Angel Food Rocked by Feuds : Volunteerism: Organization that feeds homebound AIDS patients has been hit by financial problems and layoffs. The departure of charismatic founder Marianne Williamson has added to the controversy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Hollywood spiritual guru Marianne Williamson launched Project Angel Food three years ago with the promise of delivering hot meals and kindness to people with AIDS, Clark Carlton was among the first volunteers. A year later, the self-described "screenwriter between sales" was hired for $355 a week to work as a pastry chef.

Today, Williamson is a best-selling author, Carlton still pushes his scripts, and both have parted ways with one of Los Angeles' glitziest charities. Williamson, charismatic and volatile, resigned in March amid conflicts with staff members attempting to unionize. Carlton's troubles involved a kitchen volunteer whose business cards identify her profession as "Psychic Etc."

In retrospect, these flare-ups seem omens of the bad karma clouding a charity that has blazed like a meteor across the city's cultural firmament. Inspired by New Age sensibilities, envied for its Hollywood connections, Project Angel Food is beset by strife and fiscal woes that could undermine a program that delivers nearly 400 meals daily to homebound AIDS patients.

The most recent problems erupted after six employees were laid off July 8 and a seventh quit. The crisis represented another display of bitter infighting that belies the founder's spiritual message of bountiful love and forgiveness.

Those departures, along with Carlton's dismissal three days earlier, reduced the charity's payroll from 22 to 14. Some ex-employees accuse management of purging the agency of dissidents who, after the unsuccessful union vote, have remained critical of the agency's management. These ex-employees complain that the charity, for all its good works and grass-roots volunteerism, has become too much a vehicle for social climbers and well-paid management professionals who fumbled their fund-raising duties with Williamson gone.

"Project Angel Food is very worthwhile, and they're running it into the ground," said Bill Crowe, former director of the meals program.

Crowe said a "gag order" imposed by the agency's directors had muffled dissent in recent months. "We were told you'd lose your job if you talked to the press," he said.

Directors of the Los Angeles Center for Living, which operates Project Angel Food, say the layoffs were inspired by the need to reduce costs and were based on a new, streamlined organizational chart, not on the attitudes or competence of employees.

Although the charity can operate only two months with existing funds, treasurer Edward L. Rada and management consultant Stephen Bennett say a new fund-raising program and a greater reliance on volunteers will lead to a more stable agency.

"It's been a very difficult adolescence, and the organization has learned a lot and matured a lot," Rada said. "And we're coming out of this an adult organization, taking on the responsibility the community has given us."

Williamson, whose book "A Return to Love" has sold 750,000 hardback copies, said she had "no emotional reaction" to the layoffs. "There is a spirit of volunteerism that needs to be at the center of these things," she said. "You prune plants sometimes. And sometimes you have to prune organizations."

But many observers question the fairness and wisdom of the layoffs.

Kitchen volunteer Irv Levit, 65, a retired business owner who lost a son to AIDS, said the agency's officers may be counting too much on volunteers. "You don't get rid of people that were productive," he said.

Veteran gay activist Steve Schulte, ousted last January as the Center for Living's executive director after conflicts with Williamson, said the current management should be held accountable for placing the charity in financial jeopardy.

The charity's Devine Design auction, an event that attracted several Hollywood stars and powerbrokers, netted $725,000 last fall. Schulte, who is organizing a televised auction to benefit the AIDS Network Foundation, said that when he left the Center for Living more than $600,000 was in the bank and the main financial issue was "whether to give a couple of kitchen people raises."

Only six months later, "the agency's in jeopardy," said Schulte, a former member of the West Hollywood City Council. "The bottom line is, the people who take the fall are dedicated staff people who are not overpaid. They all take the fall--with no notice."

Crowe said it was unfair that modestly paid staff were laid off while high-paid consultants were added to the payroll. Crowe, who made $34,000 a year, and Geoff Blain, paid $32,000 as director of information services, were the highest paid employees to lose their jobs. Another worker was making $17,000. "My big question is: 'Where did the money go?' " Crowe said.

Rada say the layoffs reduced the agency's monthly expenses from about $100,000 to about $75,000. "Our two biggest costs are food and personnel. And we're not going to cut food," Rada said.

But Rada will not say how much money went to executive fees. The treasurer refused to disclose the salary of new executive director William A. Wells--even though federal and state law requires that top salaries at nonprofit agencies be disclosed in year-end financial statements. When Schulte was fired he was making $60,000 annually.

Rada also declined to say how much Bennett's firm was paid to reorganize and temporarily run the charity after Schulte's dismissal.

"It was a lot. I don't apologize for that," Bennett said. But it was "much less," he said, than the rumored $100,000 fee for three months' service.

Bennett had been credited with reversing the flagging fortunes of AIDS Project Los Angeles, the state's largest community-based AIDS agency. In his 2 1/2 years as executive director of APLA, the revenues of the agency more than doubled and a $1-million budget deficit was eradicated. His annual salary in that post was $125,000.

Bennett, now retained as a management consultant for the Center for Living, said he played no direct role in the layoffs, but had advised Wells that cutting staff was an option to reduce costs. Neither Wells nor board Chairman David Kessler could be reached for comment. Kessler was attending the international AIDS conference in Amsterdam and Wells is vacationing in Italy, associates said.

Some current and former employees portray Kessler, founder of a home nursing firm and a close associate of Williamson, as their key adversary and complain that he has aggressively sought publicity and Hollywood social standing through the charity.

In some ways, Bennett said, the Center for Living represents a "textbook case" in the evolution of a community agency founded by a charismatic personality.

An understanding of the charity has to start with Williamson, a 39-year-old former cabaret singer who made a name for herself in the early 1980s with a series of talks at the nonprofit Philosophical Research Society on Los Feliz Boulevard. Blending the wisdom of Christianity, Buddhism, recovery programs and pop psychology, the self-described "unwed Jewish mother" built an enthusiastic Hollywood following with her lectures on a New Age philosophy titled "A Course in Miracles," which emphasizes individual values over moral imperatives. In 1987, she established the Los Angeles Center for Living as a drop-in counseling program to help the sick and their loved ones cope with death.

Williamson's reputation was enhanced by the start of Project Angel Food in 1989. It proved such a success that the name Project Angel Food is more familiar than the agency's parent organization. Williamson's show business connections grew to include such potentates as producers David Geffen and Norman Lear, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, and entertainers Bette Midler and Cher. Williamson officiated at Elizabeth Taylor's recent nuptials at Michael Jackson's Ventura County estate.

But within Williamson's domain, there had long been trouble. Several directors of New York-based Center for Living, including director Mike Nichols, broke from Williamson after a bitter feud. In Los Angeles, there was grumbling about her temperamental, imperious nature--"the bitch for God," as Williamson has wryly described her reputation.

Former employees Crowe, Blain and Carlton credit Williamson with helping thousands of people, but say her spiritual beliefs made for flaky management. Williamson was once quoted as saying that while Schulte insisted on business plans and goals, "I pray and ask God for wisdom of the heart."

Schulte was a popular boss, in part because he successfully lobbied for pay raises. When Williamson and Kessler fired him in late January, it sparked a union movement among employees who say they feared Williamson's capriciousness.

Bennett was brought into the fray. It was apparent, he says now, that the paid staff was larger than necessary. But with a union vote pending, he would not dare reduce personnel.

The alternative was for Williamson to step down.

"Marianne's departure from the board was very rocky," Bennett said. "Sometimes she'd say: 'That's it--I'm leaving.' Other times it was, 'I'll be damned if I let them force me off the board.' "

Said Williamson: "I'm very opposed to the unionization of volunteer organizations. With all that was going on, I just threw my hands up in the air."

No announcement was made of her resignation. Bennett said neither Williamson nor the Center for Living wanted such publicity; employees largely honored the code of silence. And, with Williamson gone, employees voted down the union.

In other ways, however, Williamson was missed. She was the charity's most effective fund-raiser--its key link to Hollywood.

Bennett and Rada say only Williamson's departure would allow the charity to mature and "stand on its own two feet." But ex-employees now complain that Bennett, known for his success at APLA, did little to raise funds for the Center for Living, thus setting the stage for layoffs.

And even with Williamson gone, a spiritual sensibility prevailed in ways not usually seen in the workplace.

One one occasion, Blain recalls, people attempted to "heal" his malfunctioning computer by laying on hands. "I mean, I believe in God," Blain said. "But I also believe He gave us brains to solve problems."

And there was Carlton's blowup with kitchen volunteer Dale Snyder, the self-proclaimed psychic. Among those who vouch for Snyder's "gifts" is head chef Guy Blume.

Carlton says he became angry over insinuations by Blume and Snyder that, when he recently called in sick, he was vacationing in Las Vegas. He scornfully suggests that Snyder "saw" this through her supposed powers.

Blume and Snyder dismiss Carlton's account as nonsense. "Las Vegas? Get real," Snyder said. She said Carlton has shown interest in her insights--and suggests that he became angry because "he was afraid I was seeing the truth."

No one disputes that Carlton had harsh words with Snyder. "Essentially I was fired because I yelled at this woman," he says. "She told me I should get hold of my anger. I told her to get hold of her psychic B.S." Snyder, however, recalls much stronger language.

Within Project Angel Food, the cook's dismissal was no small issue. Outraged volunteers circulated a petition supporting Carlton. The layoffs came only three days later.

Williamson's truest fans--dubbed "the Marianne Faithful" by some staffers--view recent events with dismay.

"This is just a karmic pay back for pushing Marianne out of the picture," said R. Morgan Many Feathers, a volunteer recruited through Williamson's seminars. "We've got to get these people on the board to humble themselves and apologize to Marianne."

Others suggest that Project Angel Food will endure without its founder and the staff she brought on board. So far, volunteers have rallied in the crisis. One recent morning, about 30 people were helping out. Eleanor and Eugene Litwak of Studio City, unaware of the layoffs and financial woes, came into the kitchen on Hayworth Avenue with a $200 check, grateful for the meals that had helped nourish their bedridden son, Ezra. Though still weakened by AIDS, Ezra was joining his parents on a round of home deliveries.

Despite such support, many volunteers are still concerned.

"You bet I'm worried," said Irv Levit, the kitchen volunteer. "I'm worried about 390 people who need to be fed."

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