If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, The Open Door Shelter must be a rest stop along the way.
It's supposed to be a place where battered women and their children can find safe haven. Instead, the Phoenix shelter, which raked in $417,000 in donations in 1994, has become the locus of vicious power grabs executed with the intensity of a hostile takeover and the maturity of a food fight.
The Open Door's founder and original director, Lola Laswell-Daniels, was forced out in January. She also was president of the board and had the dubious habit of writing herself shelter checks to repay loans--loans that never were documented. The shelter routinely paid Laswell-Daniels' personal credit-card bills. She holds title to a truck that the shelter bought, and drives a car that the shelter helped pay for.
Laswell-Daniels and her husband have retired to Payson, to a house on--no kidding--Easy Street. Now she sells real estate. But she wouldn't mind being president of The Open Door again.
She was succeeded as executive director first by Gina McQueen and then by Samantha Blair. Both resigned within weeks.
The next director, Audrey Rounding, also doubled as board president. Rounding, an interior designer from Paradise Valley, exhausted her 15 minutes of fame in the Eighties when she remodeled the McCune Mansion. She'd never worked at a domestic violence shelter.
Rounding had the dubious habit of taking things that belonged at the shelter home with her--specifically, goods from the thrift store and, in one case, the child of a shelter resident. Rounding adored the children. But she didn't think much of the battered women themselves; she calls them "scum."
In the first weeks of her nine-month tenure, Rounding decided The Open Door needed a new shelter, so she dipped into the shelter's savings and put a down payment on a $250,000 apartment complex. Later, she sold the shelter's former building to one of her employees for $80,000, which is $15,000 less than The Open Door had paid for it in 1987.
Marcia Cech-Soucy, a professional political consultant who was between campaigns, arrived on the scene in June to do some part-time accounting. Cech-Soucy says she discovered that Rounding was drawing a salary that hadn't been approved by the board. She confronted Rounding with allegations of embezzlement, and Rounding quit, although she denies the accusations.
Cech-Soucy became the new director and carted all of the shelter's records and its donor-heavy database home with her--for safekeeping and to prepare a complaint she intends to make to the attorney general.
By early October, 24 of the shelter's 27 employees had either quit or been fired.
So while The Open Door's current and former employees and directors are staging coups, filing lawsuits and lining up outside Grant Woods' office to rat on one another, who's taking care of the women?
Sheryl Burdick, one of the remaining three employees of The Open Door, laughs out loud. "The women? The women take care of the women. That's about it," she says.
For the most part, repeated attempts to find and interview women who have stayed at The Open Door over the years were unsuccessful.
People who monitor nonprofit organizations say the free-for-all at The Open Door Shelter is not that uncommon. Things like this tend to happen when there are lots of money, lots of people with time on their hands and very little oversight.
As Arlene Portada, a former counselor at The Open Door, explains: "A shelter is the perfect place for someone with a power trip to go wild. . . . People who don't have training but who have a kind of an agenda--whether it's about helping people or it's about feeling like the king--it's just a place that people can run riot with their egos."
Lola Laswell-Daniels is a stout 65-year-old with a cap of silver curls and cowboy boots, which she wears with jeans and a big metal belt buckle bearing an "L."
Like many of the women who consider themselves qualified to work with domestic violence victims, Laswell-Daniels had no formal training in social work when she decided to open a shelter. But she was once a victim herself.
"I know what it's like. I've been there. You can't tell me anything about it. That's why I wanted to do what was right."
She founded The Open Door Shelter in March 1986--under the name Brighter Tomorrows--with her sister and a woman named Marianna Ramsay.
As envisioned, the shelter would offer transitional housing to women who had spent a month in a crisis shelter, but still needed time to put their lives in order. No such service existed in Phoenix at the time.
Ramsay and Laswell-Daniels had met at Rainbow Retreat, another local domestic violence shelter. Ramsay was an administrative assistant; Laswell-Daniels did telemarketing.
In July 1986, Marianna Ramsay and seven other Rainbow Retreat associates were indicted in connection with alleged embezzlement from a bingo operation run by the shelter's executive director, Joanne Rhoads. (Laswell-Daniels was not indicted.)
Brighter Tomorrows had already changed its name to The Open Door Shelter after it was discovered that Rhoads was starting a shelter in New York by the same name.
And the same month of the indictments, Ramsay resigned from The Open Door Shelter's board of directors. She later pleaded guilty to a single count of filing false documents and served nine months' probation.
Laswell-Daniels began fund raising in 1986, although The Open Door didn't actually open its doors until October 1987, in a fourplex near 16th Street and Brill.
From the beginning, the money flowed into The Open Door. Laswell-Daniels was an expert at telemarketing. In 1987, the shelter raised $327,000, according to IRS documents; in 1988, the figure climbed to $403,000.
And all along, the shelter never accommodated more than six women and 12 children.
Laswell-Daniels soon decided to expand and chose San Diego as another location. But the San Diego directors tried to take over the shelter, then skipped town when Laswell-Daniels sued. She says she lost $30,000 in legal fees and startup costs.
Even though the shelter's cash flow appears to have been enough to accommodate such expenses, Laswell-Daniels says she paid the San Diego debts with her personal credit card, then reimbursed herself from Open Door funds over the years.
None of this was documented, she admits. And when Evelyn Henke joined the shelter staff as a bookkeeper in 1991, Laswell-Daniels failed to mention that the shelter owed her money.
"[Evelyn] knew money was being paid back for credit cards. She didn't know what it was for," Laswell-Daniels says. She says she also used her credit card to make payroll for six to eight weeks at one point; this was never documented, either.
Laswell-Daniels recalls, "I would go to the bank, get money on my credit card, put money in The Open Door Shelter['s] checking account, and that's how I would make payroll."
The concept of generally accepted accounting procedures was not familiar to shelter administration.
Henke admits that if the shelter's finances "ever came under an auditor or an IRS check, then we'd have a lot of explaining to do. . . . I can see where [the shelter] got into deep doo-doo just by not documenting."
Laswell-Daniels says she lent the shelter $15,000 in 1986. She has a signed note. But when she decided to repay herself $10,000 last year from the shelter's savings account, she didn't bother to tell anyone on the board or her bookkeeper, Henke, who discovered it when the books didn't balance.
Laswell-Daniels says she's owed an additional $5,000. So she's keeping the shelter's 1988 Chevrolet truck--which was purchased in her name and paid for with shelter funds--as collateral. She already has a 1988 Chevrolet Beretta which was partly paid for by the shelter. The title is in her name.
She says, "The Beretta is in my possession. I have always used it. . . . I do not feel that I owe the shelter that car."
She says she purchased the vehicles in her name because the shelter couldn't get credit. "The credit and everything with the shelter was yucky-poo," she says.
Laswell-Daniels was accused last year of taking a donation check for $40,000. She took the check, she admits, but only for safekeeping. She returned it after she was confronted by board members.
She says, "I never wanted to take that money. Jesus Christ, I have to look at me every morning."
In 1994, Laswell-Daniels wrote about $8,500 in Open Door checks to various credit-card companies. She and Henke admit that there is no record of what was purchased; the checks were simply recorded as "services." All of the checks were signed by Laswell-Daniels herself.
Last December, Henke and Laswell-Daniels wrote bonus checks to staff members--including $2,000 each to Laswell-Daniels and her husband (he worked in the thrift store) and $1,000 to Henke. The bonuses were logged as "educational" expenses.
Laswell-Daniels says the board of directors didn't have to approve such expenses. Apparently, it didn't approve much of anything.
Stevie King, who served on the board from about 1990 to 1995, admits she was not very active. Until last year, the board only met once a year. She doesn't recall seeing any financial information, or asking for it. She says, "If there were financial statements, I didn't look at them real closely. As long as we were not in the [red], I was happy."
Dennis Stroble, who served on the board in 1994, says, "They would show us the financial reports, but, to be quite honest with you, I didn't understand them. . . . They didn't have enough information on them to see anything."
Stroble says he spoke with Henke, "but, you know, I'm not an accountant and I never really understood the figures that well."
Celeste Howard, who joined the board in 1990, says, "Lola ran things. She would have an agenda . . . and she would pretty much tell us what she wanted us to know and it would sound okay."
But Howard became concerned in late 1993, when staff turnover increased. Howard says she heard that crisis shelters weren't referring clients to The Open Door because "they had been hearing that things were not pleasant to live there."
The board began to meet monthly, but Howard resigned in the fall because Laswell-Daniels would not accept her input, she says.
By 1994, few crisis shelters in the Valley were referring clients to The Open Door, says Terri Hanson, executive director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Hanson says counselors at the crisis shelters "felt that it was not the most nurturing environment." She refused to elaborate.
Laswell-Daniels announced her retirement in the fall of 1994. By the end of the year, just three board members remained--Jody Trentor, Jan Ashford and Audrey Rounding.
Laswell-Daniels says she was asked to stay on to wrap up loose ends, but she resigned after board members confronted her about the missing $40,000 check.
Rounding confirms this. "I called her up," Rounding says, "and I said, 'Lola, you cannot begin to believe all the stuff they have on you. You have two choices. Bring back the check with your letter of resignation or they're going to go to the attorney general and you're going to be in a lot of trouble.'"
After that, Rounding's resume gained a new, bizarre entry: "evict[ed] Lola Daniels . . ."
Audrey Rounding wants it known that her friends and associates live in Carefree and Paradise Valley, and they're nothing like the "scum" that populates domestic violence shelters. She serves a visitor Hawaiian coffee from fancy gold cups with rock sugar on swizzle sticks and shows off a book titled Woman to Woman: From Sabotage to Support.
Rounding calls the shelter system a scam. Of course, she didn't know that years ago when she started donating to The Open Door.
She'd visit the shelter to drop off donations she'd collected from friends. "One day I went over there and I had on this gorgeous, gorgeous sweater that I had just bought the day before. And I'm the kind of person who will take the shirt off their back," she says.Laswell-Daniels admired the sweater, so Rounding gave it to her as a gift. And agreed to be on the shelter board of directors. She joined in the fall of 1994. After Laswell-Daniels left, Rounding lobbied fellow board members Jody Trentor and Jan Ashford to become president. Within weeks she had also assumed the title of executive director--with no salary.
One of her first moves was to sell the shelter's location of eight years and buy a new building.
She says, "When I went there, I thought I could just go in for a couple of months and get this new shelter and kind of leave my mark and die in peace and know that I did this great thing. But when you're dealing with evil people, it doesn't happen that way. And you have people here that are power-hungry."
If she had known with whom she was dealing--and how much money the shelter was raking in--she never would have surrendered her beautiful sweater.
She says, "I went in as Mother Teresa. I came out as Mary Queen of Scots."
Rounding recruited new board members, including longtime acquaintances Elizabeth Goff, a CPA, and Bruce Smidt, a lawyer. Those two actually attended meetings. Others, like Channel 5 news anchor Carol Cavazos, didn't, and resigned within months.
Rounding says that when she took over, there were just two women and their children living at the old shelter. One unit was used for storage, another for an office. That left just two apartments for clients. She decided they needed more space and found a larger building in east Phoenix.
In the spring, Rounding launched a major fund-raising effort to buy a $250,000 building.
During a March tour of the new building, which at the time was uncarpeted and messy, Rounding painted a rosy picture of life at The Open Door Shelter.
"Everybody's like a team, we're all like a family, and you get to love all these little kids. It's fabulous," she said.
But as soon as she began to talk about the clients, her tone darkened.
"I've been to the Ritz, and I have been to the Waldorf-Astoria. The service these women get, you couldn't buy anywhere," she said. And it annoyed her that the women were frightened to move from the old shelter to the new facility.
"They can't take change. So every little thing traumatizes them," she said.
By April 1994, the women had relocated.
Former employees went before the Maricopa County Task Force Against Domestic Abuse to urge that The Open Door Shelter's membership be revoked. They cited harsh treatment of the clients, including an instance where two women and their children were evicted in the middle of the night. Rounding admits that this occurred, but says the women deserved it.
Some of the shelter's current and former clients began to complain about Rounding. "People tried to stay away as much as they could because they hated to be around her. I myself stayed away as much as I could," recalls a client who refused to work in the shelter's office as a secretary because she felt uncomfortable around Rounding.
She says Rounding badgered her about finding a job and barged into her apartment uninvited.
"This was supposed to be like our home," the woman says. Other shelter staff members left clients alone, the woman adds, but Rounding's intrusions were "constant, like she didn't trust us, she wanted to see what we were doing."
Laswell-Daniels had asked the clients to pay $125 per month if they were able; Rounding required it.
Rounding didn't have much use for the women. Looking back, she says, "The only thing that kept me at Open Door was those kids."
In fact, she liked the children so much, she took one. Rounding admits that a 7-year-old girl from the shelter went home with her on weekends, and once for about two weeks.
She explains, "This was a situation where the mother hated the child. . . . Whenever the mother would get crazy, I would say, 'Let me take her for the weekend and give you some time to calm down and regroup and get yourself together.'
"When I would have the little girl here [at home], I just hugged her the whole weekend and we would watch Beauty and the Beast, I think about 100 times. And I would teach her to go to her mother and hug her mom, because her mom didn't know how to love her."
Terri Hanson, executive director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, believes the home visits were inappropriate. "As a former shelter director, I never, never, never, never would have taken a client's child home. Never," she says.
Rounding says she didn't turn the child over to Child Protective Services because the mother didn't actually hit the child while she was at the shelter. Eventually, Rounding says, she evicted the mother for drug use. When she last heard, mother and daughter were living in a car.
Finally, one board member got curious about operations at The Open Door. Jan Ashford, who had served on the board since the fall of 1994, demanded to see financial reports.
Rounding claims Ashford started asking questions out of retribution, because Rounding had asked someone if Ashford was a lesbian. Rounding insists it was an innocent question. "I don't care if the whole world is full of lesbians. . . . There are lots and lots and lots and lots of gay women that I adore to pieces," she says.
Ashford says she heard the rumor, but it had nothing to do with her problems with Rounding. "I've been on my own, doing my own thing, sleeping with who I wanted to, doing what I wanted to all my life, and I could give a shit what anybody thinks about me or doesn't think about me," she says.
Ashford never liked Rounding. Her first impression: "That she was a kook. Ego, ego, ego."
When Laswell-Daniels left, Ashford says, she agreed to let Rounding take over. But, she says, it was with the understanding that Rounding wouldn't receive compensation. (Laswell-Daniels had received a salary of $500 a week.)
Rounding claims she was promised $20 an hour in merchandise from the thrift store. She says she has a contract signed by Ashford and Jody Trentor, but she can't find it.
"Never, ever, at any time was there ever a discussion of her going to the . . . store and getting stuff for herself," Ashford says. If there is a contract, she adds, "It's forged."
Trentor refuses to comment.
Rounding has an envelope filled with scribbled receipts for clothing and household items she took from the thrift store.
Sheryl Burdick has saved one of the thrift store's "in-kind" receipts, which are given to people who donate items to the thrift store. This particular receipt is for a bag of clothing valued at $100. Burdick says Rounding took the entire bag, and that both she and her daughter, Christina, watched her.
"My daughter was like, 'Mom, does she do that all the time?'" Burdick recalls.
Burdick signed the receipt, and at the bottom wrote: "A bag of clothing for Audrey only. Witness is a 11 yr old girl." Christina signed the paper.
Rounding says the board voted April 27 to give her a salary of $25,000 a year, retroactive to February 1 and to increase to $30,000 after six months. Plus a car allowance of $300 a month. Shelter checks--some of which were signed by Rounding--were written for the full amount she says she was owed.
There is no record of a salary being approved in the minutes from the April 27 board meeting.
Ashford admits a salary was discussed, but says, "It was never consummated. There were never any minutes written up. There was never any agreement."
Smidt and Goff say they both recall that a salary was approved, but don't remember details.
In June, Rounding fired Susan White, a fund-raising employee who had been with the shelter since 1988. Lorna Harvey, another longtime employee, also left. Both have since filed wrongful termination suits against the shelter. Although each woman initially made claims for about $1,500 each, the shelter has already forked over about $6,000 in attorney fees.
Jan Ashford resigned from the board July 1, but on July 6 she showed up at the shelter with a letter signed by herself, White, Harvey and three other former or current shelter employees. The letter called for Rounding's immediate resignation. White and Harvey say Ashford told them they would run the shelter until a permanent director could be found.
Rounding called Janice Goldstein for help.
Janice Goldstein is executive director of the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association. As of last May, she'd never volunteered for a nonprofit, but her son was going off to college and she thought she'd fill some empty hours. She'd received an Open Door flier in the mail, so she offered to baby-sit. Like anyone else who exhibited the slightest interest in the shelter, Goldstein was on the board of directors within weeks.
Rounding says, "I thought if we could get Janice to come on the board of directors . . . that we would be the cleanest shelter in Maricopa County and never do anything wrong because we would have 5,000 attorneys!"
From the beginning, Goldstein had questions about the shelter. The first time she showed up to baby-sit, the place was chaotic--she was put in charge of six kids, ages 14 months to 8 years old. And when Goldstein got some circus tickets donated, Rounding refused to let the mothers attend, even though there were extra tickets. She and Goldstein took the children to the circus themselves.
"It struck me as sad, because I thought this would have been a nice thing for the mothers to do with their children," Goldstein says.
Goldstein stopped by the shelter on the day of Ashford's attempted takeover. She calmed Rounding, told her not to worry.
"I never saw her again," Rounding says wistfully.
Rounding had taken Goldstein's advice, and hired Marcia Cech-Soucy to straighten out the shelter's books.
"[Cech-Soucy] came so highly recommended by Janice that I thought she would be our savior," Rounding says.
Marcia Cech-Soucy's got a mouth on her that would make Roseanne blush. She marches across her living room to grab the goddamn phone, the fly of her jeans unzipped beneath a stretched-out white tee shirt, lank red hair hanging in her face. She looks and acts like a co-ed pulling an all-nighter before a midterm, but Cech-Soucy is 43, the mother of two adult sons and a political consultant by trade. Cech-Soucy never had the urge to be around battered women. She's a former victim, and would rather not be reminded of it. But it was a nonelection year and her savings were gone when she was asked to keep books for the shelter for two hours a day, at $8.50 an hour. It was better than temping.
Besides, she was intrigued by the possibility of uncovering wrongdoing. Cech-Soucy recalls, "Janice [Goldstein] said, 'You know, I'm just uncomfortable and I just can't put my finger on what's wrong here.'" Cech-Soucy agreed to infiltrate.
At first, Cech-Soucy says, it wasn't so bad. "[Rounding] didn't sound particularly wacko. She just said she had recently taken over as the board president and executive director and there was just a lot of confusion there."
Quickly, Cech-Soucy says, she realized that checks were missing--the checks Rounding had written for Rounding's salary. She began to document her findings.
Rounding says Cech-Soucy was a problem from the beginning. She showed up late for work and took her entire second week off to move. Rounding nicknamed her the "V Woman" for "vicious, violent, vulgar."
One day, Rounding says, she came to work and Cech-Soucy had shut down the fund-raising phone banks. "She had all the phones turned off and fired all the phone people," she recalls. She says Cech-Soucy told her a friend was going to take over the telemarketing.
If Cech-Soucy was so disruptive, why didn't Rounding simply fire her? Rounding says by then--it was late summer--she just wanted out.
Cech-Soucy was convinced that Rounding had to go.
"[Rounding] clearly was not even lucid at this point. You know, talking to herself in the office, praying, talking to angels, hearing voices from God, in a complete stupor for hours on end, almost catatonic," Cech-Soucy says.
Cech-Soucy says she confronted Rounding about the missing checks, and Rounding admitted she had been taking a salary.
"She was still telling the staff to the day before she left . . . that she'd never taken a dime in salary. Nobody cares who gets paid what. Twenty-four or $25,000 is not a big, fat wage. Why would you lie about it?" Cech-Soucy asks.
Rounding says she never lied.
After that, Cech-Soucy says, "I was just rude to her. I was just in her face, most of the time, because I just couldn't believe. I'd say, 'You can't do that! Do you understand?' It was almost like being somebody's parent. . . . I took the checkbook away from her, closed all the checking accounts. She went right down and had counter checks printed. I couldn't stop her."
Rounding resigned at the end of September. Goldstein was elected president of the board. Her assistant at the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association, Linda Schlagel, is secretary/treasurer. Cech-Soucy is operations director.
Rounding says that by the end she didn't even know the shelter's monthly balance. She didn't have a checkbook. She left.
She says, "I just woke up one day and said that's it, I've had it with this bullshit. I was losing all my hair, I had chest pains, I just couldn't take any more."
Of the battered women, she says, "The good ones are helped by their families. So I'm sitting there killing myself, for what? Women who don't care about themselves, a staff that stabs me in the back, a board of directors I'm fighting tooth and nail. For five bucks an hour?"
Audrey Rounding is one of the few former Open Door employees who doesn't want her job back.
Former counselors Annette Cain and Heidi Deane were hired by Rounding. Both women say Rounding was pushed out unfairly, and that they were, too, when they refused to climb aboard Cech-Soucy's "hate bandwagon," as Deane puts it.
Cain is trained in chemical-dependency counseling. Deane is a real estate agent.
Cech-Soucy says the women failed to show up for work for days, then demanded their jobs back. She won't give them back.
Cain and Deane returned to the shelter recently to plead with Cech-Soucy for their jobs. She wouldn't budge.
Deane says Cech-Soucy threw a temper tantrum. "She was screaming at the top of her lungs. Now, for a domestic violence shelter, I'm sorry, but that's just totally unacceptable."
Cain says, "I guess we felt as battered as the women who were there to be healed." The women say they never saw any evidence that Rounding had done anything wrong.
"One of the things I'll say about Audrey is that she tried," Cain says.
Both women have filed workers' compensation claims. Deane says, "I can't sleep. I have lost 15 pounds in the last two weeks. I have been really unable to focus."
Cech-Soucy has a separate bone to pick with Deane. The old shelter on Brill Street was sold to Deane while she was employed by The Open Door under Rounding's direction. Deane took over the mortgage and agreed to a $5,000 down payment, to be made in $300 installments. She's up to date on mortgage payments, but not the down payment.
Deane refuses to pay the down payment until she's happy with the way the shelter is run. She says, "I have a real problem with this shelter. The way that they manage their money, I feel like this money's going to go into Marcia's pocket. I'd rather take the money I owe them and divide it around among the women."
A few weeks ago, the shelter's founder, Lola Laswell-Daniels, came to Phoenix from Payson for a firsthand look at the shelter and its operations. Evelyn Henke, who had quit as The Open Door's accountant in April, went along.
They walked into the shelter, and Laswell-Daniels made what she thought was a generous offer. She told Cech-Soucy that she was willing to return as board president, and that Susan White, Lorna Harvey and Henke were willing to come back to the shelter as volunteers.
Cech-Soucy says Laswell-Daniels kicked the door with her cowboy boot and told her, "Get your stuff and get out, sister."
Cech-Soucy told them to leave.
When they didn't, she called the police.
Laswell-Daniels and Henke left.
Laswell-Daniels says she wants to get involved in the shelter again because "people that have donated want to know what has happened to money given to the shelter after January. I can't tell them. I don't know. But they're coming to me. And I have a sense of responsibility to them."
Henke is annoyed that she devoted four years of her life to The Open Door Shelter--for this.
She says, "I don't think the people who are running it now should be running it. They know nothing about it. They're a bunch of idiots."
For all the turmoil of the past months, The Open Door Shelter is a peaceful place on a recent Friday afternoon. Cech-Soucy strolls through the complex, pointing to where the clients will have a community garden and where she hopes to set up a quiet patio for the staff in the back.
Cech-Soucy has kept her original desk. Rounding's office is empty. "I didn't want her office--I thought it had cooties," she says, giggling. She's just hired a woman who will serve as a social services coordinator. She expects to get the staff up to five and hold it there. Everyone will be paid $7 an hour, except for Cech-Soucy, who will remain at $8.50.
In the past weeks, the shelter's checking account has dropped as low as $1,000, but Cech-Soucy has turned the database over to a professional fund-raising organization and hopes cash will come in soon. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and she figures that outrage over O.J. Simpson's acquittal should be good for some extra donations.
The thrift store is still closed--landlord disputes. Cech-Soucy says the shelter has a line on a new site for the thrift store. She's investigating the possibility of renting space from Jan Ashford, board member.
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