Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program chief to exit after probe
The executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Florida-based Caribbean chapter became the latest executive of the giant environmental group to depart, in a sign that complaints about a toxic workplace culture have stretched far beyond its D.C.-area headquarters.
The departure of Luis Solórzano, announced internally at the group on Monday, comes after POLITICO submitted detailed questions to both him and the organization about allegations from current and former employees, including racial and homophobic slurs, sexism and whistleblower retaliation. POLITICO spoke to 13 people who work or once worked for The Nature Conservancy, and who objected to the way the group’s leaders had allowed Solórzano to remain despite years of complaints.
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The Nature Conservancy told its North American leadership staff that Solórzano is leaving the organization “[e]ffective immediately,” creating a vacancy atop one of the group’s most significant North American programs.
The group — the world’s largest environmental organization, with $1.3 billion in revenue last year — declined to comment to POLITICO on Solórzano’s employment status. Solórzano has not replied to queries seeking comment on this and several other issues.
Solórzano created a divisive atmosphere in the Coral Gables-based Caribbean office that has made ex-staffers feel like they were in “an abusive relationship,” said Raimundo Espinoza, a former staffer who contends he was forced to leave the organization for raising concerns about Solorzano’s management style.
“It’s one of those things that people will tell you it is a boys’ club,” Espinoza said in an interview, adding that the discord is affecting The Nature Conservancy’s mission of conservation, protecting biodiversity and bolstering resiliency to climate change. “Even though good work is done because TNC does have really top-rate scientists and amazing folks in the field, these are the same folks in the field that are getting harassed, victimized by people like Luis Solórzano.”
Espinoza said he signed a non-disclosure agreement when he left the group in March 2016, but he’s ignoring it now because he was “bullied” into it.
The group said any complaints about its staff are thoroughly investigated, and it would not comment on any specific personnel matters.
“The Nature Conservancy is committed to providing a work environment that is free of discrimination or harassment,” spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said in an email.
Whether the damage to The Nature Conservancy brand is significant enough to shake the countries, corporations and big donors that work with the organization remains unclear. But at a time when climate change and environmental issues are gaining greater prominence, just as the #MeToo movement has shined a light on workplace misconduct, some fear the transgressions at The Nature Conservancy could threaten its place in the broader movement given that many of its partners are values-driven philanthropies and public-facing entities.
Former employee Vera Agostini, who is now deputy director of fisheries and aquaculture for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, said the turmoil is affecting the environmental group more than its leaders know.
“Now more than ever we need a diversity of voices at the table,” said Agostini, who worked under Solórzano at The Nature Conservancy. “What’s happening at the Conservancy is eroding that and does erode their ability to have real impact.”
Nature Conservancy President Brian McPeek resigned from the organization May 31, two days after POLITICO reported on a sexual harassment and misconduct investigation that led to the departures of two other senior officials from the group. CEO Mark Tercek’s announced departure came one week later on Friday. But Espinoza said “a lot more is needed to really protect the staff.”
The internal investigation by the law firm McDermott Will & Emery described a culture in which women feel it is difficult to advance and management is prone to side with the accused when employees report misconduct. The fallout has riled the organization, a long-respected group whose mission of protecting forests, oceans and other natural systems and wildlife across 72 countries has drawn support from Republicans, Democrats and corporations.
Tercek sent a video to staff Tuesday evening describing the steps the group was taking regarding its workplace culture, and explained his decision to ask McPeek to resign. He said the organization would “immediately” change how sexual harassment claims are evaluated, conduct “more robust and comprehensive investigations into anonymous claims,” and ensure that complaints against senior staff are reported to the board “immediately” rather than only at board meetings, among other changes.
“It’s become very clear to me that I didn’t communicate very well on these matters last week,” he said in the video. “I’m still learning how best to communicate on these topics. Thank you for being patient with me and thank you even more for holding me to a very high standard.”
Current and former employees say the organization has fallen short of that standard.
Agostini had been the director of science and conservation at the Caribbean office, and left in November 2017 as director of climate adaptation after more than two years with the chapter and nearly a decade with the Nature Conservancy. By her count, she contacted human resources about Solórzano more than 20 times, including sending a detailed exit email to Tercek documenting the chapter’s problems.
She also said she witnessed significant turnover: Eleven people left their positions or were terminated in 25 months. Nine were women. The Nature Conservancy declined to provide information on departures from the office prior to Solórzano’s exit, but said that 62 people worked in the Caribbean program, up from 46 in 2015.
“I don’t believe TNC senior managers realize how this is impacting their work, but I do think that it will percolate,” Agostini said, adding, “Maybe it’s just a modus operandi TNC has — they protect their senior managers.”
Another woman who worked in the Caribbean office said the issue of male managers abusing power and finding protection from their friends is systemic at The Nature Conservancy.
“I’m sure that for every Luis there’s probably 10 more,” she said. “All of this outward sort of accountability that TNC is trying to present feels inauthentic because so many people raised the alarm about Luis.”
The woman agreed to speak to POLITICO about her time at the Caribbean office on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues regarding working under Solórzano.
And yet, Solórzano achieved prominence within The Nature Conservancy despite the many documented complaints and correspondence regarding his leadership. He joined former President Bill Clinton on stage June 3 in St. Thomas for a panel on post-disaster recovery organized by the Clinton Global Initiative.
Despite the complaints against Solórzano, The Nature Conservancy successfully fought to keep him from leaving for a new job with the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul, South Korea. Mark Burget, who headed TNC’s North American operations and was advised of several staff complaints regarding Solorzano’s conduct, said in a Sept. 13 email to staff that he and Caribbean chapter board Chairman Mike Kowalski persuaded Solorzano not to take a “very senior leadership position” with the Korean organization.
“Please join in our enthusiasm for the ongoing opportunities of the TNC team in the Caribbean under Luis’ leadership,” Burget said in the email.
Espinoza, the former staffer, said he and Solórzano were initially on good terms, but that changed in 2015 over beers at the Hotel Parque Central in Havana. Espinoza said Solórzano referred to a colleague, Kemit-Amon Lewis, who was not present, as a “negro maricón” — a slur for a gay black man — and said he wanted to get rid of him.
“He was very much persecuted for years,” Espinoza said of Lewis. “For the next two years they made his life impossible.”
When contacted by POLITICO, Lewis said he signed a non-disclosure agreement with Nature Conservancy upon his departure in June 2018. “If you spoke to Rai, then you definitely have my story,” he said.
Espinoza said he reported the hotel incident to Charlotte Young, who was then the top ethics official at The Nature Conservancy. Espinoza said Young promised confidentiality. But Espinoza said he felt it later became clear that Solorzano knew a complaint had been filed and that he had been the source.
Espinoza said he later reported Solórzano to Young for another matter. Soon after, Espinoza said he received a terse email from Solórzano informing him he was being put on a performance review even though annual assessments ranked his work as “exceeds expectations” and “outstanding,” according to correspondence Espinoza shared with POLITICO. Young did not reply to a request for comment.
Nothing came of the new performance review, which Espinoza chalked up to a lack of evidence supporting such a step. But by then, issues in the Caribbean were reaching a tipping point.
Espinoza joined other colleagues in drafting an anonymous March 25, 2016, letter to Burget expressing concern about Solórzano’s “poor leadership.” Solórzano reported to Burget.
John English Knowles, a mapping and monitoring specialist at the U.N. Office for Project Services who left The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean office in June 2018, helped organize the letter. It was one of several instances when Knowles said he informed The Nature Conservancy of problems with Solórzano, including an exit email sent to Tercek in which Burget is copied. Knowles shared the email with POLITICO.
“I didn’t appreciate Luis’ treatment or mistreatment of my colleagues and friends,” Knowles told POLITICO in an interview. “I always worked behind the scenes to raise awareness of his poor leadership style.”
Agostini said Solórzano often bristled when people questioned him.
“When someone who clearly had technical experience and training shared a strong opinion, he would often respond with a public dismissal of the input,” she said. “Too often they were excluded, belittled or alienated.”
Knowles said he never filed a formal complaint with human resources, though he did speak with an ethics officer anonymously. He was concerned not only about mistreatment of staff, but also firings that he felt were meritless. Knowles said he wanted to formally report Solórzano several times but “was told not to do it by people higher than me.”
Burget and another top Nature Conservancy official, global programs leader Kacky Andrews, both left the organization following the investigation by McDermott Will & Emery, as POLITICO reported last week.
When asked about the March 2016 letter, Burget’s attorney Paul Kiyonaga said the human resources and compliance office was in charge with dealing with those complaints, not managers.
“That’s the policy and the policy was followed,” Kiyonaga said in a statement.
Espinoza said Solórzano told him to attend a meeting about the future of the Cuba program in Puerto Rico around that same time in March 2016. Espinoza entered the room, where he said Caribbean chapter deputy director Marci Eggers and David Hackney, then an attorney with The Nature Conservancy, were waiting. They informed Espinoza it was his last day and gave him a choice: Accept a severance payment with a non-disclosure agreement by day’s end, or refuse and potentially get nothing.
“It was retaliation, pretty much,” Espinoza said. “I just feel that I was just a casualty of keeping the status quo at that time, which was protecting someone that they liked.”
Women felt especially challenged by Solórzano, and described widespread gender discrimination and chauvinistic behavior, according to several former staffers in the Caribbean office.
The female former Caribbean staffer who spoke anonymously to POLITICO said that when she joined the staff in the mid-2010s,Solórzano immediately began making inappropriate comments about her appearance. When she told him to stop, she said, Solórzano’s attitude shifted: He implied he had well-placed higher-up friends in the organization, including in human resources. He even ceased speaking to her.
The situation grew so toxic, the staffer said, that she refused reassignments that would have had her continuing to report to Solórzano. She quit instead.
She said it had become clear that The Nature Conservancy wouldn’t address complaints about Solórzano even after she made attempts to raise issues with the chapter’s executive team. The chapter at the time had only an interim director of operations and human resources, and she said the global human resources official had proven an unreliable confidant.
“I had great experiences up until I met Luis Solórzano,” she said.