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AIA leadership criticized over recent staff retreat, alleged financial mismanagement, cronyism, nepotism, and FAIA jury controversy

Trouble at HQ?

AIA leadership criticized over recent staff retreat, alleged financial mismanagement, cronyism, nepotism, and FAIA jury controversy

AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Payton Chung/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Twenty-three former AIA presidents signed a letter recently addressed to AIA Board of Directors expressing their concerns related to “finances and management,” as well as “potential misspending, nepotism, cronyism, and the pursuit of personal gain” within AIA leadership. The letter, which has been reviewed by AN, was sent on April 4 and asked for information about multiple issues.

In total, the April 4 letter raised nine problems, including the “disappearance of [Architect] magazine;” an ongoing legal dispute between unnamed high-ranking leadership members; the sale of the AIA’s contract documents business; stipends for senior officers; proposed changes to membership bylaws which would allow academics, interior designers, and engineers into the AIA; and recent renovations to the AIA HQ at 1735 New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. 

The letter was signed by George Miller, chair of the Council of Former Presidents, as well as FAIA members and former AIA presidents: Randly Vosbeck [sic], Donald J. Hackl, Sylvester Damianos, Jim Lawler, Susan A. Maxman, L. William Chapin II, Raymond Post Jr., Michael J. Stanton, Ronald L. Skaggs, Gordon H. Chong, Thompson E. Penney, Eugene C. Hopkins, Douglas L. Steidl, Katherine Lee Schwennsen, RK Stewart, Clark D. Manus, Jeff Potter, Helene Combs Dreiling, Elizabeth Chu Richter, Russell A. Davidson, Thomas Vonier, and Carl Elefante.

Current AIA President Kimberly Dowdell responded to acknowledge receipt of the letter on April 5. She proceeded to speak with George Miller “on a regular basis from early April to present regarding the issues raised,” an AIA spokesperson told AN. On April 30, the AIA Board “retained an independent law firm to conduct a formal review of the issues,” the spokesperson continued. Ten virtual meetings were held between May 1 and May 24 to field questions and “clarify issues that were causing confusion and address the misinformation spreading among members.” The AIA spokesperson said the May sessions were “well attended.”

Financial Mismanagement?

Centerstage in the letter was a recent staff retreat to the Royalton Bavaro in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, between March 6 and March 9—a trip that ultimately cost $152,519.07. The April 4 letter’s signatories requested an explanation for the expense given the AIA’s current $13.5 million deficit “recently identified in remarks made to [Council of Former Presidents Chair] George Miller by leadership.” 

On Glassdoor, one anonymous person who claims to be an AIA employee called the trip a “bribe” that is part of AIA CEO Lakisha Ann Woods’s “best places to work campaign by taking the entire staff to the Dominican Republic for three days.”

Via email, the AIA spokesperson told AN that the AIA is “fiscally sound” and that the staff retreat “location was selected because of the lower costs and was accounted for in the annual budget. The Strategic Council and Board reviews and provides feedback, and the Board approved the budget.”

Staff Changes?

The April 4 letter arrived amid concerns related to workplace culture at AIA. One prominent termination was Terrence Ona, who was fired in late April after 17 years as the AIA’s general counsel. Ona’s termination came less than one month after he wrote a memo dated March 25 to Heather Philip-O’Neal, treasurer and chair of the AIA’s Finance and Audit Committee, in which he reported “irregularities in the [AIA’s] contracting and event planning processes.” Ona has since retained a lawyer. 

In response to the claims, the AIA spokesperson told AN: “There’s been a lot of changes recently, which were required to keep that commitment to our members. Some of those changes were not communicated as clearly as they could have been, and we want to apologize for any confusion members may have had in the past few weeks.”

On Glassdoor, individuals claiming to be former and current employees anonymously describe a “climate of cronyism, nepotism, fear, and corruption.” One account stated: “Dissent isn’t tolerated. People fear for their jobs. Restructuring people has become commonplace.” Another reads: “There is [rampant] bullying: I’ve had multiple conversations with coworkers who are in tears.” On Reddit, one thread begins with the title “AIA National employees need your help.” Current AIA employees refused to speak directly with AN due to fear of losing their jobs after Ona was fired. 

Regarding recent layoffs and poor Glassdoor reviews, the spokesperson told AN: “AIA’s employee retention rate is 88.7%, while according to consulting firm Mercer, the U.S. average in 2023 was 82.7%. In addition, AIA was certified a Great Place to Work®, which includes a third-party survey of the AIA staff.”

Nepotism?

In his March 25 memo, Ona noted that AIA CEO Lakisha Ann Woods and CSO Vicky Schneider operate a separate travel agency together called AFS Event Management. (Currently the business is registered in Maryland to Timothy Ruffin Woods, Woods’s husband.) Ona stated: “There is a question whether EVP/CEO Woods directed the Royalton Bavaro to assign the Marriott Bonvoy points resulting from the Staff Meeting to her personal account, rather than the established AIA account that is used to disburse points for future AIA business, under established practice.” 

To address the matter, Ona suggested an outside investigation. Ona was fired several weeks after he sent his memo. When asked about Ona’s termination, the AIA spokesperson said “due to confidentiality concerns, we cannot comment on employee matters.” 

Other issues in the April 4 letter were related to “management and staffing.” One anonymous source on Glassdoor called the business relationship between CSO Vicky Schneider and CEO Lakisha Ann Woods “brazen nepotism.” According to a Glassdoor review from January 9, after CSO Vicky Schneider was hired by the AIA, Schneider’s sister was also hired by the AIA.

“Several employees of the national staff with substantial institutional experience and knowledge have departed in the past year or so,” the April 4 letter stated. “Members should be made aware of the qualifications, experience, and skills brought by new senior employees. In addition, members have expressed concerns about people now in senior AIA positions who have had or may still have business relationships with the CEO. Hiring must result from an open, transparent recruiting process, a clear understanding of needs and qualifications, and a thorough evaluation and resolution of any conflict-of-interest issues.”

Jury Tampering?

The April 4 letter by former AIA presidents came two days after a separate letter was written by the 2024 Jury of Fellows. This second letter was also addressed to AIA Board of Directors. (The Jury of Fellows are those responsible for choosing who is elevated to the status of Fellow, or FAIA.) This year, seven jurors convened between February 3 and 8, 2024, to review applications and make selections. The jury consisted of Chair Lisa Lamkin, Pamela Rew, Carl D’Silva, Anne Schopf, Sanford Garner, Margaret McFadden Carney, and Lourdes Solera. In the April 2 letter, jurors noted that they were “faced with a particularly difficult issue.” 

During a group call on February 20, 12 days after the selection process ended, the Jury of Fellows was asked to join a separate call with past AIA president Emily Grandstaff-Rice, EVP Lakisha Ann Woods, and former General Counsel Terrence Ona. The 2024 Jury of Fellows note that they were asked to “reconsider the elevation of one specific candidate who was not elevated by the jury this year.” The particular candidate wasn’t named.

On February 21, the Jury of Fellows issued a letter to Terrence Ona declining the request. They said that the request violated Chapter 11 of the Rules of the Board – Honors, Awards, and Medal; Communications subsection which states: “AIA staff, National Officers, Officers-elect, and members of the Board, or Strategic Council are prohibited from campaigning on behalf of, nominating, sponsoring, or serving as a reference for candidates of any AIA Honors or Awards described in these rules.” The 2024 Jury of Fellows subsequently raised the issue in their April 2 letter to the AIA Board of Directors.

President Dowdell responded to the memo on April 18 and April 30 offering updates on the status of the review by an independent law firm, the AIA spokesperson told AN. The results are anticipated to be distributed in the near future. “We are confident the facts will correct member confusion, and we look forward to sharing the results more widely once the review is completed,” the spokesperson stated.

In response to AN’s request for comment, the jury provided a unified response that declined to comment publicly about any of the details of the 2024 Fellows Jury process. They added, “We only wish to assure you that we held our work on the jury to the highest of standards and protocols.”

“AIA leadership takes the concerns of its members very seriously,” the AIA spokesperson said. “That is why the Board of Directors promptly initiated the external review by an independent law firm to answer questions, and address misinformation. We expect the initial review to be complete in the near future. The Board is committed to sharing the results with members.”

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