One of Palo Alto's most visible nonprofit organizations, the Downtown Streets Team, is embroiled in a scandal in which its top executives have been accused of sexual harassment, creating a hostile work environment and encouraging a drinking culture.
The accusations of misconduct extend to CEO Eileen Richardson who founded the organization in Palo Alto in 2005, and her son, Chris Richardson, the chief program officer. The allegations first came to light in a Dec. 11 story published on the San Jose Inside website. The former employees alleged they were subjected to inappropriate behavior that went on for years.
The Weekly interviewed six people who worked for Downtown Streets Team between 2008 and 2019. Some of the employees spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation or harm to their current or future employment. Specific details of many alleged instances could not be confirmed — employees spoke of instances that took place privately — but on the whole, the accusations pointed to disturbing patterns of behavior. The Weekly is publishing details of those incidents corroborated through documentation and multiple witnesses.
Downtown Streets Team provides mentoring and services, including housing vouchers, to chronically homeless individuals — so-called "team members" — in exchange for volunteering to clean city streets and distribute food to other homeless people. In 2018, its budget was $6.2 million, according to its annual financial report.
It partners with 15 cities and counties, most of whose leaders have expressed concern over the allegations while asserting that the local teams of workers have performed well. A few municipalities are calling on the nonprofit for a greater explanation of the accusations.
The former employees said they tried to work behind the scenes through their attorneys with Downtown Street Team's board of directors, but they came forward publicly after learning that the Richardsons still remain in their positions.
"Something has to shift in that leadership dynamic" for the toxic leadership to really be gone, former employee Kelty Spencer said.
The ex-employees said they fully support the mission and work of the nonprofit organization.
"I still believe in the Downtown Streets Team method. I don't believe in the leadership," said Michelle Fox Wiles, who worked there as an employment specialist for a year and nine months.
Multiple women said they felt compelled to engage in the drinking culture to be eligible for promotions and pay raises. Most of the women who worked at the organization were in their 20s.
"I saw a lot in those three years. It was like a frat house all of the time," a senior case manager told the Weekly. "They were making comments about what they did with women the night before. I can't emphasize how toxic the environment was."
Without specifying what a board of directors' investigation into the allegations concluded, board President Owen Byrd said in a Dec. 18 statement that the "claims regarding sexual comments, alcohol misuse and misbehavior were greatly exaggerated by former employees." He said that such behaviors are not "ongoing."
Byrd said the board took the allegations seriously. It hired The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer in August 2018 to investigate the claims, which he said covered 2014 to 2016. Oppenheimer is known for investigation and remediation of workplace discrimination and harassment.The investigation found the sexual harassment allegations and reports of alcohol use were exaggerated, according to Byrd. Most of the allegations were not substantiated, he said, but he declined to provide any information on those that were.
But an administrative law judge in 2017 and the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board in 2018 ruled that the Richardsons had engaged in sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment in at least one case. The appeals board granted former employee Zia MacWilliams unemployment benefits based on conditions that caused her to resign. They accorded her the right to sue, according to hearing documents. MacWilliams also claimed gender-based pay discrimination, but the appeals board rejected that claim.
MacWilliams was an employment specialist for the Downtown Streets Team and a project manager for four years starting in 2013. Her experience as an employee at the nonprofit caused her to have panic attacks, requiring medication, she said. Multiple times, her doctor advised her to quit, she said in a written statement. In 2017, she finally did.
"When I made any reference to the comments about women in the workplace, I was told I needed to get with the 'culture' of DST," MacWilliams said in her statement.
In one instance of sexual harassment, Eileen Richardson and other female employees talked about sexuality after one employee had identified as lesbian during the December 2014 Christmas party, MacWilliams wrote in her statement.
"Eileen mentioned she was attracted to women, and then looked at me and my body and said: 'You aren't my type, but she is,' and pointed at my colleague. ... I remember feeling uncomfortable about the reference to my body.
"I later found my colleague passed out intoxicated in an office room with Eileen stroking her hair in the dark alone. I regret that I left abruptly, and did not check if (the colleague) was OK that night," MacWilliams wrote in the statement.
Multiple witnesses who attended the party have confirmed the interactions and said that Richardson was highly intoxicated. At least two other colleagues said they also felt that Richardson's behavior was inappropriate.
The drunk employee "got sick in the restroom and went into another office to sleep it off. Eileen was there alone in the room with her. I felt it was not OK," one employee said on condition of anonymity.
Administrative Law Judge Robert M. Lofgren ruled that MacWilliams was subjected to sexual harassment by "the CEO when the claimant was advised that she was interested in a female coworker, but not her. She was also subjected to sexual banter by the CEOs (sic) son at a party attended by the claimant," according to documents.
MacWilliams' sworn testimony also had more weight than the testimony of the employer's witness (who was not identified in the ruling), "which was lacking in conviction and frequently nonresponsive to questions posed to her regarding the issue of sexual harassment," he wrote.
The Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board in 2018 awarded MacWilliams unemployment benefits. They found that MacWilliams had complained to her supervisor about the working environment and to Chief Operations Officer Elfreda Strydom about Chris Richardson's alleged sexual harassment.
"Nothing was done. The complaints did not change the working environment. Because the persons engaging in the conduct were the CEO and the CEO's son, complaining about their conduct would have been futile," Appeals Board Panel Members Robert Dresser and Ellen Corbett wrote.
Byrd said the lawyer the board had hired failed to show up at the appeals hearing, which left Eileen Richardson and Strydom to testify without legal representation. The board decided not to take the case to Superior Court because of the legal cost and instead paid the unemployment claim, he said.
Accusations of drinking in front of a client
Two employees who worked directly with clients also claim they witnessed Eileen Richardson drinking in front of a client who was a recovering alcoholic.
The client, who was close to Richardson, was working hard on his sobriety in 2014 and was finally reconnecting with his estranged daughter. In honor of the occasion, the employees, the client, his daughter and Richardson met to celebrate at a Mountain View restaurant.
Spencer, a senior employment specialist, said that by the time they arrived, Richardson had a bottle of wine on the table and clearly had been drinking. Spencer and the other employee said they tried to redirect attention away from the alcohol. Richardson, however, offered the client wine and continued to drink.
"We were scared about his sobriety," the other worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. The client refused the alcohol, she added.
Spencer said: "Eileen drank a lot (that evening). It was inappropriate at a case function and with a client. ... I thought: 'I don't know if I can contribute to this workplace.'"
The client could not be reached for comment, nor did Richardson respond to repeated requests.
Byrd said the board discussed the situation with Eileen Richardson and she denied the allegations.
Spencer said that there were no further incidents involving a client as far as she knew. But multiple employees said alcohol was "ever-present" in the San Jose headquarters, where people could choose to drink and often did in the afternoon. (Clients did not often visit the headquarters.)
The employees said they often felt pressure to drink at company parties and after-work socials because that's when the Richardsons made offers of advancement.
Oppenheimer, however, did not find gender bias in salary or advancement and nor any evidence of favoritism related to socializing with management, Byrd said in a Dec. 18, 2019, statement. The investigation consisted of a review of documents, 23 interviews regarding the allegations, an evaluation of the current work environment and an assessment of current employees' feelings.
He told the Weekly that he could not release the investigation report because "it is confidential attorney-client privilege about confidential personnel matters."
In his December statement, Byrd said the allegations predated 2016. However, the timeline is at odds with the claims of former employees, who said they were subjected to the incidents for years after. One person said the sexual harassment and drinking went on through the first part of 2019, after which she left the organization.
But Byrd said in a follow-up phone call that the employees did not bring up the allegations of improprieties through their attorney for any other years beyond 2014 to 2016, so the board was not able to look into them.
"We can't be responsible for investigating things that weren't brought to us. We fully investigated everything that was brought to us about a discrete period of time," he said.
As a result of the investigation, Byrd said in the statement that board members instituted multiple changes to the organization's human resources management. It added a director of HR who reports directly to the board, created a board-level HR governance committee, increased manager and employee training and developed guidelines to ensure standards of professionalism.
Byrd told the Weekly that while he could not discuss employee matters, the board was satisfied they took the right actions. He said it is unfair to drag the Richardsons through the salacious accusations when they received "a clean bill of health" through the investigation.
"Eileen and Chris continue to enjoy the full confidence of the board. Eileen created and (she and) Chris grew the best-of-breed organization with a new and successful way" of addressing homelessness and the organization continues to succeed in fulfilling its mission, he said.
The San Jose Inside articles "presented one side of the story. It's an awkward position for us to be in to rebut. We're not trying to litigate in the court of public opinion," he added.
He said he was proud of the way the principal employees and the board have handled the accusations and he is "very confident" that they have addressed the accusations in a systematic way.
Jennifer Smith, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto senior economic advancement attorney who has represented some of the former employees, said she couldn't comment on the case due to legal and confidentiality issues.
While the Downtown Streets Team's board of directors claims it has addressed many of the issues raised by the former employees, the employees said the changes don't address the leadership, whom they feel did not show good judgment. They have called for the removal of Richardson and her son. Both remain in their roles. Neither of the Richardsons have responded to requests for comment for this article.
Two board members, Michael Hindery and David Kiferbaum, have resigned in recent months, however. Hindery declined to specify if the allegations contributed to his departure, which according to his LinkedIn profile, occurred in September 2019 after two-and-a-half years on the board.
"I was no longer an appropriate and effective board member," he said by phone.
Kiferbaum, a three-year board member, resigned in December 2019, according to his LinkedIn profile. He has not returned requests for comment.
Former Weekly design director Carol Hubenthal is also on the Downtown Streets Team's board of directors and deferred comment to Byrd.
Some funders and fund managers said they will be watching how the issues resolve.
Chau Vuong, a spokeswoman for Silicon Valley Community Foundation, confirmed that its philanthropy advisers sent individual written communications to about 30 donors who had recommended giving grants from their charitable funds to Downtown Streets Team. The foundation mentioned there were allegations of workplace misconduct and discrimination at Downtown Streets Team and included a link to the San Jose Inside story.
"We will be paying careful attention to how this situation unfolds and are hopeful that any outstanding problems will be quickly resolved to the satisfaction of the organization's board, staff and the community it serves," Vuong said in an email to the Weekly.
Downtown Streets Team has been a regular recipient of funding from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund.
"We will be requesting a full response from the agency on these allegations as part of our review of its 2020 application for funding," Publisher Bill Johnson said.
Some cities and counties that fund Downtown Streets are also looking into the allegations. Numerous cities have told the Weekly they take the allegations seriously and that they reached out to the nonprofit to learn more. While some said that they had increased their scrutiny of the nonprofit, none have gone as far as to suspend their existing agreements and most had praised the work that their Downtown Streets Team performs on a local level.
Palo Alto currently has three contracts with the nonprofit: a service contract with the Public Works Department, a community development block grant and a human services resource allocation grant, said Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communication officer.
"As these contracts are set to expire, the city will assess evaluation criteria, including past performance," Horrigan-Taylor said.
In San Jose, which has one contract with the Downtown Streets Team, city leaders are also allowing the existing agreement to proceed, recent allegations notwithstanding. Jeff Scott, public information manager for the city's Housing Department, said the city has a "competitive and transparent bid process" and that other parties are "welcome to participate in that process for future contracts." San Jose's contract with the nonprofit expires on June 30, he said in an email.
Some have gone a step further. Tim Swanson, media and communication manager for Sacramento, said the city manager has asked the city auditor to look at the city's agreement with Downtown Streets Team "to ensure the organization is complying with the terms of the contract and comporting itself appropriately." The city, Swanson said, takes the allegations seriously. City staff has met with the nonprofit's local leadership to "raise these issues and express concern," he said in an email.
"To date, the city has not had any indication of impropriety in its dealings with Downtown Streets Team," Swanson said in an email. "The city continues to monitor the situation closely."
In Redwood City, which launched its program last December, city leaders were "disappointed to hear of the allegations," said Jeanne Sullivan Billeci, a city spokesperson. City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz is scheduled to meet with the organization's board chair later this month to discuss the matter, Billeci said. The interactions between Downtown Streets Team and city staff have been professional, she said.
"The city has seen benefits since the launch of the Redwood City Downtown Streets Team, with more than 21 individuals now participating in the program," she said.
City officials in Modesto have also discussed the allegations with the Downtown Streets Team but have decided not to take any further actions at this time. City spokesman Thomas Reeves told the Weekly that the city is "pleased with our relationship." It has not received any complaints about its local Downtown Streets Team, he added.
"We've had tremendous success. We're in close contact with the agency and we will continue to closely monitor our operations and manage the expectations while the contract is in place," Reeves said.
Santa Cruz County, meanwhile, sent the nonprofit a letter last month, requesting more information about the incidents and asking whether events such as ones depicted by San Jose Inside had occurred in Santa Cruz County. The letter states that the county "is concerned about the behavior described and notes that our contract with DST includes a non-discrimination clause."
"The services our local Downtown Streets Team provides are incredibly valuable to clients and the community, and the county wishes to continue the relationship going forward," states the Dec. 17 letter from Ellen Timberlake, director of the Santa Cruz County Department of Human Services. "However, the county cannot condone the behavior described and must protect the security and safety of beneficiaries."
The letter requested that the nonprofit respond by Jan. 10. As of Jan. 16, it had not received a reply, according to county spokesman Jason Hoppin.