After the news broke on Friday that the Secular Coalition for America had fired Executive Director Edwina Rogers (below), we were left with a lot of unanswered questions, including why exactly she was let go. Was it because she was a Republican (which she said was a factor, though the SCA denies it)? Was it because of embezzlement that occurred under her watch (which the SCA also denies)? Was it because of management issues? It wasn’t very clear, and it didn’t help that Rogers was talking but SCA representatives were not.
The crux of the problem, it seemed, was reported in the New York Times by Laurie Goodstein and Mark Oppenheimer:
Ms. Rogers said in an interview that she was given no warning and no reason for her termination, but that she suspected she was being blamed for organization funds discovered to be missing and said to be embezzled by two of her subordinates. An internal audit, obtained by The New York Times, found that two employees who handled the Secular Coalition’s finances embezzled $78,805, mostly by using the coalition’s credit cards to pay for restaurant meals, travel and plastic surgery. Ms. Rogers said she had no authority over the finances, but discovered the misuse of funds, reported it to the police, fired the two employees and commissioned the audit with the approval of the board.
Over the weekend, I spoke with multiple people involved in the decision and I obtained a copy of that same internal audit.
It very clearly absolves Rogers of any wrong-doing on that end. (The SCA added that the report had not yet been finalized.)
It also explains in detail how the two employees used the company credit card without getting pre-approval for purchases as SCA policy mandated. (Rogers, for reasons only SCA knows, never had access to the group’s finances until recently). In addition to what the NYT article stated, a four-figure check was also issued by Employee 1 for a side company owned by Employee 2.
Perhaps as part of a quid pro quo, Employee 2 gave Employee 1 two raises without approval of the SCA board.
As if that weren’t enough, the two employees conjured up fake donors to keep the finances above water, even forging signatures when necessary.
(I called one of the fired employees to hear her side of the story. When I told her who I was, she went silent for a bit, then told me she didn’t want to speak with me. Awkward.)
Okay. So the embezzlement happened. Rogers realized this when money that should have been going into her retirement account wasn’t getting there. She alerted the SCA. She received access to the financial records to verify her suspicions. An internal audit happened. The two employees were fired. Rogers was cleared of having anything to do with this. And the SCA board now has to figure out a better form of oversight and transparency because they dropped the ball on this one.
So let’s put to rest any conspiracy theory about Rogers being involved in the shady money problems. She didn’t do anything wrong in that capacity and SCA reps reiterated to me that she was never a suspect. In fact, if it weren’t for her blowing the whistle, the two employees might still be running their con.
Was it because she was a Republican?
Again, even if that’s what Rogers thinks (and told the NYT), there’s no hard evidence that her political affiliation was hurting the organization. It was seen as a benefit when she was hired and was still considered a benefit today. Board President Amanda Metskas told me her Republican credentials “were always viewed as an opportunity for the Secular Coalition — which is a nonpartisan organization — to expand its reach and influence beyond so-called traditional political boundaries.”
It’s possible that some board members didn’t like her outreach to conservatives (Rogers attended CPAC in 2013). It’s also possible that some donors chose not to give money to SCA because of her — but it’s unclear that any donors stopped giving after she was hired.
I will also add that it’s not like her GOP background was a surprise. The SCA knew exactly what it was getting when they hired her. So it would be very strange that they would let her go for that same reason.
Were there management problems or issues with staff?
I don’t know many companies where there isn’t tension between employees and the boss, but the SCA folks I spoke with wouldn’t confirm anything. Of the disagreements between staffers and Rogers that I was told about, none were major. It’s entirely possible there were larger issues behind the scenes that had just built up over time.
So we’re back to the original question: Why was Rogers fired?
Simply put, it seems like it was probably for the same reasons anyone in her position is ever fired. The board wasn’t happy with her performance for whatever reason and they decided to let her go. The timing coincided with the embezzlement coming to light, but there’s no evidence the two were connected.
Perhaps the most interesting factoid I learned over the past few days was that, according to Rogers, she wasn’t the one who informed the New York Times about her situation (leading to a narrative that’s tilted in her favor). When she got the phone call informing her about her firing, she was told the press already knew about it. Meanwhile, Metskas told me the the SCA didn’t contact the NYT, either…
So how did Goodstein and Oppenheimer get the scoop? Either someone’s lying or someone’s leaking information.
I asked Metskas if the SCA was taking legal action against the two employees who stole the money. She wouldn’t confirm that, either (which I can respect since it’s an issue for the board to deal with privately).
Either way, the SCA has come out of this controversy looking pretty awful. Even before the NYT story came out, at least a few donors had requested their money back because they didn’t trust it in the hands of the organization. The SCA will have to figure out a way to rebuild that trust. They had to work for it when they hired a Republican, but whatever goodwill they earned seems to have been squandered. As a supporter of the work they do, I hope they get their shit together — and fast.
Finally, I asked Rogers if she knew her future plans. She was exploring her options and didn’t have any specifics yet but added that she’d be just fine.