Three former supervisors at the Salvation Army's Denver drug and alcohol rehabilitation center say the center's directors blatantly discriminate against blacks and gays--and that people who have spoken out against the "outrageous racial hostility" have been fired, demoted or expelled from the center. Epithets such as "boy" and "nigger" are commonly hurled at employees and program participants, say the center's former director of rehabilitation, thrift-store supervisor and intake coordinator for the rehab center, all of whom claim they were fired for blowing the whistle. Those accusations, coupled with a general state of disarray, have led two members of the Salvation Army's advisory council to call for the ouster of the rehab center's present leadership.
Former intake coordinator Tom Nabholz, whose attorneys are preparing a federal civil-rights suit against the Salvation Army, claims the hostile environment was created by captains Jack and Anna Phillips, the husband-and-wife team that runs the rehabilitation center. In sworn affidavits taken on Nabholz's behalf, present and former employees say that Jack Phillips verbally abused black clients and staffers alike, once telling a black secretary, "Smile so I can see you." Anna Phillips reportedly ordered staffers to stop admitting black women into the drug rehab program because they are "not our kind of people."
In addition, the affidavits say, the couple's "mean-spirited" and "abusive" behavior has subverted treatment efforts and resulted in low program enrollment, even though there is a dire need for rehab beds in the Denver metropolitan area.
Jack and Anna Phillips would not comment on the specific allegations in the case to Westword. The Salvation Army has hired Colorado Springs attorney Glenn Schlabs to represent it in the matter. Schlabs says his clients "categorically deny" any and all accusations of racism. Though the attorney says he can't discuss personnel matters, the Army also disputes Nabholz's contention that he was fired in retaliation for reporting discrimination. The only official response provided by the Army is a joint statement issued by Major Daniel Starrett and Paul Delaney, administrators for the charitable organization's western territory. "The Salvation Army," the statement says, "asserts in the strongest terms possible that all employees and beneficiaries are treated fairly and without discrimination, in keeping with the principles of the Army."
The stated mission of the Salvation Army (a Christian charity organized along military lines) is "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination." But in a March 1 letter to officials at the Army's territorial headquarters in California, two of the three members of the local volunteer council (which meets monthly to review conditions at the local chapters and advise the territorial administration) expressed concern that despite repeated requests, Army brass was ignoring employees who wished to voice complaints. "Our principal need was to have you address the horror of [Jack Phillips's] random, uncaring decisions which hurt people, broke morale and brought dishonor to the name of our Lord," wrote councilmembers Stewart Swanson and Eugene Peters.
"If we may be so specific," the letter continued, "we respectfully request that Captain Phillips be removed IMMEDIATELY...certainly not to a similar assignment where he can further ply his tyrannical skills through interpersonal relations, causing even more heartache and pain."
Swanson says the councilmen were later pressured by Army administrators to back off their call for the immediate removal of Jack Phillips. "We were persuaded," he and Peters wrote in a follow-up letter to headquarters, that an untimely reassignment would "draw unwanted attention to an Army transfer."
Swanson, a retired Defense Department employee, now says he wishes he hadn't given in so easily. "The Salvation Army is not concerned with the welfare of employees who have been unjustly terminated," he says. "On the outward appearance, they're quite concerned about their fellow man. But they don't practice what they preach, I guess."
The nerve center of the Salvation Army's Denver Adult Rehabilitation Center is a musty warehouse located alongside the intersection of Interstate 25 and Interstate 70. Inside, alcoholics and drug abusers who are, they hope, on the road to recovery, sort and stack mounds of donated clothing, repair furniture and appliances, glue wobbly drawers and reupholster torn sofas. The program participants' duties are considered not work but "work therapy," which the Army believes will build self-esteem and restore the participants "to useful, productive habits which prepare them to return to regular employment."
The participants also help pay their own way: The income generated from the sale of the donated goods is the major source of funding for the rehab program. And whether they realize it or not, as they go about their jobs, they are carrying out one aspect of the Army's three-pronged philosophy, which stresses the importance of a balance in the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of a person's life.
Although the Army may be best known locally for its bell-ringing Christmas kettle collections, it has established a number of churches and social- services agencies throughout the state. It operates a homeless shelter near downtown Denver and a child-care center in Aurora. There is a Red Shield community and recreation center, a social-service center for men and a family-services program that provides emergency aid to families and travelers.
Separate from those agencies in both administration and location are the Army's thrift stores and the Denver Adult Rehabilitation Center. The rehab center is a six-month program for people attempting to recover from addiction to drugs or alcohol, or for those who suffer "temporary handicaps," which the Army defines as emotional instability or even "wanderlust."
"Beneficiaries," as the program participants are called, receive counseling, work therapy and religious instruction. They are given a place to live, food to eat, clothing to wear and a small weekly allowance. There is no charge for the treatment. Almost all of the money to fund the center comes through the Army's secondhand stores, located throughout the Front Range. The Denver center also receives approximately $300,000 annually in food stamps and grants from the state.
"The majority of our people," says Jack Phillips, "have tried other programs. Usually, when they've hit bottom and they have nowhere else to turn, they end up on our doorstep. And thank God we're here."
Many Salvation Army clients are referred to the program via the legal system--especially Denver's drug court or local probation officers. Some come to the center from detox centers or other rehabilitation programs. Others just walk in the door.
The men's dormitories, located at the sprawling Mousetrap complex, house 102 men. The Army opened a women's rehab and housing program, known as Cottonwood, in August 1993. Housed in a plush Arvada home that features eleven bedrooms and thirteen bathrooms, Cottonwood is huddled among expensive, surburban houses and faces a large expanse of open space. There is room for twenty clients at the residential facility, although former employees say the home has never been full. Female clients are bused each weekday from Arvada to the Mousetrap center, where they work and attend chapel.
Untold numbers of people have been helped at the Denver center and others like it around the country. Tom Nabholz is one of them. Nabholz came to work for the Army thirteen years ago, after graduating from a drug and alcohol rehab center in San Diego. His wife is a Salvation Army soldier, and though Nabholz is not a member of the Army's church, the couple has "dedicated" their son to the Salvation Army, the equivalent of having him baptized.
When Nabholz moved to Colorado in 1986, he went to work in one of the Army's thrift stores. He later became a resident manager at the men's rehab center. In 1991 he accepted a job as intake coordinator for the center. As coordinator, it was his duty to interview and screen potential clients, maintain records and help recruit new clients.
In June 1992 the Salvation Army decided to transfer the director of the Denver rehab center, Major Kenneth Angel, to Honolulu. His counterpart in Hawaii, Captain Jack Phillips, was sent to Denver in his stead.
The rehab center had been run smoothly under Angel, Nabholz says. But things quickly went downhill when Jack and Anna Phillips arrived.
Sharon Skeen, former director of rehabilitation for the Salvation Army's Denver facilities, is quick to stress that most people associated with the Army are wonderful, caring people. Jack and Anna Phillips, she says, "are bad eggs."
"They treat everybody like they were in Marine boot camp," says Skeen, who claims Jack Phillips fired a female employee at the Army's Arvada thrift shop because she declined to call him "sir."
As program administrator, Jack Phillips was responsible for the health and welfare of the program participants and for the center's thrift shops, which have experienced lagging sales in recent years.
But in a December 1994 letter to Salvation Army officials, Peter Davis, the Denver rehab center's former general supervisor, accused Phillips of failing miserably on both counts. Captain Phillips "tried to make it look like little things, not keeping the floors nicely swept, were the cause of all the center's problems," wrote Davis, "when really we were understaffed because of his rotten treatment of whomever he worked with...the turnover rate was ridiculous."
In 1994, Davis continued, he saw the number of participants in the men's program drop from more than ninety to around thirty. Although some of that decrease could be linked to the Army's new no-smoking policy, he wrote, "I know in my heart that the inhuman treatment of the employees and beneficiaries by Captain and Mrs. Phillips was an even bigger reason."
Both Davis and Skeen claim that many of the people who entered the program were driven away by Jack and Anna Phillips's behavior. "I remember Mr. Phillips shouting at people to get out," says former program parti-cipant LaDonna Bell. "I've seen him take people out of chapel because they were not singing, and he'd kick them out of the program. He actually came down from the pulpit and escorted them out. He'd say, `I want everybody singing and smiling and looking happy.'"
Black women had a particularly hard time of it, says Bell, who enrolled in the program to rid herself of a cocaine addiction. "Mrs. Phillips's conduct," Bell says in a sworn affidavit, "makes it harder for blacks to enter the program and also makes it harder for them to complete the program and graduate."
Bell says she was unceremoniously ousted from the program last fall after she was accused of having a relationship with another female client. Bell, who at 35 has two sons, denies that she is gay. "But they didn't want to hear no explanation or anything I had to say," she adds, noting that while Nabholz was sent to dismiss her, she believes he was simply following orders. "It was, `Get out now.' I felt terrible about the way they put me out. No money or anything. It was Saturday, the day we're supposed to get our gratuity [allowance], and they wouldn't even give me that."
In the affidavit, Bell says she believes she was unjustly terminated because she is black.
Thirty-year-old Bambi Williams claims she also was singled out because of her race. When she declined to appear in a group photo with other program participants, she says, Jack Phillips responded by telling a chapel full of people, "That's okay, because we don't want black people in our brochure, anyway."
Jonathan Carpenter, another black client, says he was given the heave-ho after thirteen days in the program because he neglected to shave one day last October. "We were fixing to get breakfast," Carpenter remembers, "and there was a big line. I had just gotten my food when Captain Phillips comes up to me and says, `I want you to go shave right now.' I told him I would as soon as I finished eating. He said, `No! Do it now!' The next thing I know, he says, `Never mind. Get out. You're out of the program.'
"I tried to get him to calm down," Carpenter continues. "I told him, `I came here to get help.' He said, `I don't give a damn.' Then I tried explaining that for black men, if you shave every day, you get razor burns. And he said, `If that's your problem, go and find a black program.'"
Lynne, a former participant in the rehab program who asked that her last name not be used, entered Cottonwood in March 1994. For her, enrolling in a rehab program for her cocaine addiction was an alternative to doing jail time on a forgery charge. She, too, reports observing racism at the center.
Once, says Lynne, she overheard a "screaming match" between Anna Phillips and Susan Stayton, then Cottonwood's resident manager. Stayton, who is white, was dating a black man, which, Lynne says, irritated Anna Phillips. "She was saying that Sue should know better than to go out with a man like him," says Lynne. She says she heard Phillips tell Stayton, "`He's black, and how can you lower yourself like that?'" (In an affidavit taken by Nabholz's attorneys, Stayton says she resigned from the program in part because of friction with the Phillipses over her relationship with the same man, who is now her husband.)
Lynne also says that Anna Phillips asked her to watch new enrollees and report back to her if they did anything wrong. Mrs. Phillips, she says, told her to "keep an eye on the black ones in particular, because they're known to fraternize. They like to have sex anywhere. They don't care where they have sex."
As for her own sexuality, Lynne says she was up front with the Cottonwood administrators from the beginning. "I told them I'm a lesbian," she says. "And Sharon Skeen said, `Fine, as long as there's no fraternization.'"
But Lynne says her sexuality didn't sit well with Anna Phillips. According to the Salvation Army's position statement on homosexuality, Salvationists do "not regard a homosexual orientation as blameworthy in itself or rectifiable at will." They prefer, however, that homosexuals not act upon their impulses and caution that "homosexual practices" render a person ineligible for church membership.
Lynne says Anna Phillips attempted to convert her to heterosexuality. "I had one-on-one counseling with Mrs. Phillips," Lynne says. "It was supposed to be directed toward God and stuff like that, but she always directed it toward, `It's wrong to be a homosexual.' She'd say, `Don't you feel in your heart that you should change your sexuality? Wouldn't your daughter love you more?' She'd even put out parts of the Bible for me to read."
Despite the fact that she and Mrs. Phillips didn't see eye-to-eye on the matter of sex, Lynne prospered in the program. She says she was never written up for rule violations, that she was promoted numerous times and that she was promised a job as an Army dispatcher when she graduated from Cottonwood. But in late September, when Lynne had less than a month to go in the six-month program, Sharon Skeen, whom she viewed as a supporter at the facility, took a three-week medical leave to have cancer surgery. "I told her, `They're going to terminate me before you get back,'" Lynne remembers. "And the minute Sharon left, every time I turned around someone was watching me."
With just two days left in her program, Lynne says, she was told by a counselor that because of her "poor attitude," Anna Phillips was recommending that she stay another month. She quit instead. Anna Phillips knew, Lynne says, "that if she extended my program, I'd leave. And I did."
Lynne's probation officer could have sent her to jail for failing to graduate. "But my probation officer said that as far as she was concerned, I finished the program," says Lynne. "She knew what it had been like for me. I would call her in tears sometimes because I felt they were trying to brainwash me out of being a homosexual."
The Cottonwood women's facility is regarded as something of a crown jewel by the Salvation Army, which regularly brings visiting officials to tour the home. The sprawling house in rural Arvada is a beautiful place--and former staffers and program participants say Anna Phillips intended to keep it that way.
The home's centerpiece is a large living room facing a deck and looking out over rural Arvada's open space. The room is decorated with new furniture and a piano. The clients, however, are forbidden to enter the room--except to clean it. There is a weight room, but the clients have been barred from that, too. "They put it on restriction, because they said someone stole a VCR," says Lynne.
In the summer of 1994, Anna Phillips "made it clear that she would prefer to fill [Cottonwood] with white, middle-class women," Skeen says in a sworn affidavit. "She would refer to potential black clients as `not our kind of people.'"
In August of that year, Skeen continues in her affidavit, "Mrs. Phillips told me that there were `too many blacks' in the women's residence. She said that the female resident manager Linda Goody was `afraid to sleep in the residence' because of all the blacks." (Goody denies making that statement.)
According to Skeen's affidavit, Anna Phillips further instructed her "not to admit any more blacks" at a time when seven of fifteen female clients were black. "She also told me that she didn't want any more lesbians."
The following month, Skeen says in her affidavit, Anna Phillips called her at home while she was on medical leave to complain that Tom Nabholz was still admitting black women into the Cottonwood program. "She said, `I thought I told you to stop him from admitting blacks,'" says the affidavit. "`Stop him now!'"
Nabholz says he did as he was ordered. When someone from the drug court or detox or the hospital would call about placement for a black woman, he says, "I would have to tell them there was a waiting list. I'd tell them that they could try again in two or three weeks, but most of them would never call back."
By early November, when the Salvation Army's territorial commanders descended on the Denver rehab center to conduct their yearly review, employees were ready and eager to discuss their frustrations about the Phillipses. "My staff had been wanting to talk to someone," says Skeen. "We had been feeling frustrated. We'd take in seventeen people and lose nineteen in a week because people didn't feel comfortable or fairly treated."
In a meeting with territorial director of programs and counseling Paul Delaney, Nabholz, Skeen and others complained that they had been working hard to bring people into the program but that their efforts were thwarted by the limits the Phillipses placed on race.
In a separate meeting with division commander Major Daniel Starrett, two other employees complained about Jack and Anna Phillips's tirades. "I told Starrett that [the Phillipses] were abusive and explosive and were not doing the Lord's work," store supervisor Larry Krout says in a sworn affidavit. "I also said that all the store managers were scared of [Jack]. The Major admitted that he had noticed that fear. He also told me that he was aware of problems concerning Ms. Phillips's conduct and had received complaints about her. Finally, I told him that Captain Phillips abused clients and did not assist their treatment."
The employees' comments were supposed to remain confidential. But "within 24 hours of those meetings," says Skeen, the Phillipses knew everything that had been said.
Nabholz became so convinced that he would be fired that he began carrying a small, voice-activated tape recorder in his waistband. Among the conversations he taped is one from December 2 with a woman he identifies as Anna Phillips. On that tape, the woman's voice rings out, "I put down the limit on black women. We had more blacks than whites at one time, and they were ruining the house."
(Salvation Army attorney Glenn Schlabs tells Westword that he never heard that tape recording. But Nabholz's attorneys, John Culver and Seth Benezra, claim that not only did they play the tape for Schlabs, they saw him write down verbatim in his notebook the remarks made by the woman identified by their client as Anna Phillips. Culver and Benezra say that Schlabs didn't deny that Phillips was the woman on the tape and that he responded that the comment about black women was simply a reference to the need to diversify Cottonwood's population.)
By March 1995 Jack Phillips had fired Nabholz, Skeen and Krout. A fourth staffer who had complained about conditions at the rehab center quit rather than accept a demotion. In his affidavit, Krout says he was told he had been fired because of a lack of funds but that his post was soon filled by another employee. Nabholz says he was suspended and then fired after he failed to accomplish what he considered an impossible assignment given him by Jack Phillips: to bring occupancy levels at the two facilities to 95 percent in less than a month. Skeen, who had taken another medical leave while receiving chemotherapy treatments, says she learned she was to be fired on the same day she was to return to work.
Nabholz, Skeen and Krout found a sympathetic ear with the Army's Denver advisory council. That group, made up of retirees Stewart Swanson, Eugene Peters and Wayne Wood, was appalled by the stories it heard from the fired trio and from other present and former employees. In February the councilmen fired off a letter to Army Commissioner Peter Chang at the Territorial Headquarters in California, warning that the rehab center "is now in an increasing state of disarray as the current leadership becomes more bold and wanton in its near-tyrannical operations." They also asked that Chang send two high-ranking officers to Denver to meet with them and discuss the situation.
The councilmen specifically asked that Delaney and Starrett not be sent to discuss the matter, as they felt those two had violated the agreement to keep employees' comments confidential following the November review. Chang sent Starrett anyway. And though the council was pleased that someone listened, it was distressed that nothing was done after Starrett's visit. On March 1, Peters and Swanson penned another letter to Chang, this time requesting that Jack Phillips be removed from his position in Denver "immediately" upon his return from a tour of Russia.
Three weeks later, Peters and Swanson appeared to change their tune. Rather than insisting on Phillips's immediate departure, they wrote, they had been persuaded by Starrett and retired Salvation Army Lieutenant Colonel David Allen that "such an off-the-normal-schedule move would draw unwanted attention to a Salvation Army transfer." The two also noted in their letter that Starrett had told them that other Denver center employees were pleased with the Phillipses.
The ink on that conciliatory letter was barely dry when, Swanson says, he realized he'd been right the first time. "To pacify them, we thought that perhaps it wouldn't be necessary for him to leave immediately, but that if he left in June, at the end of the rotation, that would be all right," he says. "But when I got home and I wasn't under any pressure, I reread the letter and decided that I had nothing to apologize for."
Peters says he believes the matter will be taken care of when the Salvation Army makes its traditional June transfers (councilmember Wood did not return phone calls). "From all I've gotten," Peters says, "I'm sure [Phillips] is on his way out." (Jack Phillips says he has not been told when--or if--he and his wife must leave Denver.)
A simple transfer for the Phillipses, however, won't be good enough for Tom Nabholz. He says he doesn't want the Salvation Army to move the problem along with the Phillipses. According to attorney Culver, Nabholz intends to seek back pay and compensation for economic, emotional and punitive damages.
"I've been practicing employment law for quite a while," adds Seth Benezra, "and I've never seen a case so outrageous. It's despicable--especially for a church-based organization.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.