“Open Letter” from staff charges head of PPFA’s largest affiliate with creating “a culture of fear and intimidation,” insist she be dismissed

But board stands behind Laura McQuade

By Dave Andrusko

It hasn’t even been a year since Planned Parenthood unceremoniously kicked Dr. Leana Wen, its much-vaunted new president, to the curb and PPFA is again up to its ears in another intra-office scandal. 

To put it mildly, last year’s vitriolic back and forth did not reflect well on the nation’s largest “abortion provider.” Dr. Wen (who defiantly said she “refused to go quietly into the night”) accused a “vocal minority” including many national staff and board members “who prefer a stridently political, abortion-first philosophy” for her ouster.

Which brings us to the story, published Thursday, in the New Republic written by Melissa Gira Grant, the headline of which says it all: “A Worker Uprising at Planned Parenthood.” 

The story was so explosive by the next day the Kansas City Star published a follow up story headlined, “Planned Parenthood Great Plains CEO accused of abusive behavior, systemic racism.” Judy L. Thomas’ and Bryan Lowry’s story, which is many ways even more damning,  began

The former head of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, who left for New York in 2017 to run the organization’s largest affiliate, is being accused by her current and former staff of abusive behavior, systemic racism and financial mismanagement.

More than 300 people have signed an “Open Letter” calling for Laura McQuade’s removal as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. The letter, released Thursday, also calls for an independent investigation into the allegations as well as salary cuts for top officials earning more than $100,000.

(The story was presumably of particular interest to the newspaper  because Planned Parenthood Great Plains is located in Overland Park, Kansas.)

The “Open Letter” excoriates not only McQuade (“who has proven to be a toxic leader and autocrat”) but also “our Chief Officers, and our Board of Directors” at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. The letter began with a particularly unsettling allegation. Under  the heading, “Abusive Behavior,” we read

Dozens of staff members have witnessed McQuade yell, berate, slam her fists, verbally abuse, humiliate, and bully employees, often brutally shaming staff members in internal meetings in front of their colleagues. This behavior is out of line for anyone, let alone the CEO of a “progressive” organization. After countless complaints, a law firm was hired by the board to investigate these allegations. The firm interviewed staff members at all levels, including senior leaders, many providing documented evidence of this pattern of behavior. The cost of this, and other investigations into her behavior, was likely significant and has led to no positive organizational change.

On the issue of fiscal mismanagement and McQuade’s salary, Thomas and Lowry write, “Planned Parenthood of Greater New York’s 2018 tax filing — the most recent one available — shows the organization had a $57.4 million budget. McQuade’s total compensation that year was $428,321. The letter signed by New York employees says the organization has lost the $18 million surplus it had when McQuade took over and now has a projected deficit of $6.2 million for the six months of 2020, calculated before the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For their part, the board at McQuade’s  new job, Planned Parenthood of New York (PPFA’s largest affiliate), circles around the allegations without laying any blame specifically at McQuade’s feet. For example, “We also publicly committed [in early 2019] to race equity as foundational to the organizations transformation, supported through organizational learning and accountability to staff, patients, and community.”

[Referring to Margaret Sanger, the “Open Letter” says, “Planned Parenthood was founded by a racist, white woman. That is a part of history that cannot be changed. While efforts have been made to undo some of the harm from institutional racism, many of these issues have worsened under McQuade’s tenure.”]

But in the end, the Board closed ranks. Their statement concludes, “The Board fully supports the work and leadership of Laura McQuade and her team and commits to continuing the  transformation that will make us a stronger, more equitable organization for our staff and communities.”

The National office said all the right things. In her Friday statement, Alexis McGill Johnson, Acting President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, wrote:

“The behaviors outlined in the open letters from Planned Parenthood Greater New York and Planned Parenthood Great Plains staff, including those of misconduct, abuse, racism and more, do not align with Planned Parenthood’s standards or our values. The allegations are serious, and we expect the Planned Parenthood Greater New York Board of Directors to hold themselves accountable to their mission and values by centering their patients, their staff, and their community….

“Our work demands that we hold ourselves to high standards. We must ensure that Planned Parenthood workplaces are safe and supportive environments for patients, volunteers, and staff at all levels. This includes reckoning with and addressing directly our own internal and structural racism — both historic and current — which harms Planned Parenthood staff, our Black staff in particular. Every person in leadership, including in the national office and affiliate CEOs, must take this responsibility seriously.” 

In his brief statement, Brendon Hill, the current president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains,  sounded some of same notes, but added, “Planned Parenthood Great Plains is very different from two years ago.”

That is of particular interest, given what Elise Higgins, a former lobbyist in Kansas for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, told Thomas and Lowry. She said

that concerns the New York affiliate is raising about McQuade’s behavior are identical to those the staff experienced here.

“There was a massive amount of staff turnover during Laura’s tenure,” Higgins said. “Laura frequently yelled at staff both in private and in meetings with their peers and belittled and ridiculed.

“The way that displeasure was voiced created a culture of fear.”