Devil or Angel?
By Jeannette De Wyze
THE REVEREND AMANDA RUTHERFORD MAY says her favorite story among the many told about her is the one about how she learned to fly helicopters in the Army. The 53-year-old May, who heads the local Episcopal Community Services charity, in fact has no idea how to pilot a chopper, nor has she ever served in the military. But the tale, she suggests, illustrates the wild inaccuracies of some of the rumors surrounding her.
If the story did indeed once circulate, it’s no more colorful than other comments made about the woman nominated to be San Diego’s next Episcopal bishop. May also is the subject of an investigation by the district attorney’s office into alleged financial misconduct at the local charity. “I personally believe Amanda is evil,” declares one former high-ranking executive of the venerable local charity. “While she professes to care for the poor people, the downtrodden, she treats her fellow human beings like dirt.”
At the other end of the spectrum, a longtime friend insists, “She is a deeply, deeply spiritual and compassionate person, willing to drop anything and go at a moment’s notice to help someone.”
Those who know her agree May is prodigiously intelligent and charismatic. “Amanda is one of the smartest people I know,” says Bob Morris, a former ECS vice president. Morris first met May more than 35 years ago, shortly after May had graduated from The Bishop’s School in La Jolla. “You know how some people are smart but plodding?” Morris asks. “Amanda is smart and swift. She’s a very swift thinker.”
After high school, May raced through a degree in political science at Stanford, graduating with high honors after just two years. At 20, she set off for England, where she obtained a master’s degree in industrial relations from the London School of Economics. May says she briefly considered entering the ministry around this time but rejected it as impractical. Instead she married an Englishman, had the first of two children, moved with her husband to rural Missouri, raised cattle and studied accounting at night.
When the marriage ended in divorce, she returned to San Diego, became a certified public accountant and worked for Arthur Young & Company for six years. It was only after leaving the large accounting firm and starting her own tax and financial planning service that she decided to further her religious studies, May says. This was around 1988. She was teaching Sunday school to high school students at St. Dunstan’s in San Carlos, and the weekly sessions triggered in her a desire to deepen her knowledge of the scriptures.
She then attended a seminar at the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, and it proved to be “a really transformational experience,” May says.
“I really experienced a true call to ministry.”
Encouraged by friends and clergymen, May began divinity studies. She graduated and was ordained a deacon in June 1993, becoming a priest six months later. She says she considered working within a parish or getting a teaching position, but social-service work had long beckoned. She says, for example, that she once tried to convince the officials at her seminary “to use the cafeteria for a homeless shelter in the winter because it was so damn cold.” AIDS, those recovering from drug or alcohol addictions, preschoolers from poor families.
May says ECS’ directors about this time were looking for a new leader for the agency, and on July 1, 1994, she stepped into that job. Morris, recruited by May to join her staff a few months later, recalls that ECS was struggling. Founded in 1927, it “in 1994 was an organization that really had no constituency, except government,” Morris says. “And government really wasn’t very impressed with ECS, either. The church didn’t support ECS. There was no private philanthropy that supported ECS. Most people didn’t even know what it was.
With a budget of about $9 million, the charity then was administering a disparate jumble of programs. But May says she had a vision of concentrating on activities for the individuals who tend to be the most overlooked: people homeless because of mental illness or domestic violence or AIDS, those recovering from drug or alcohol addictions, preschoolers from poor families.
One ECS manager remembers having an “incredibly positive” reaction to May the first time he met her. “I remember thinking, Gosh, what a sweet and gentle person! She just was so engaging.” Shortly thereafter, this man says he was called into May’s office for a private conference. “We were having an incredibly pleasant exchange, with me again thinking how much I liked her.” At one point the receptionist, “a very meek lady,” interrupted to tell May about an incoming call from another priest. The manager says when May was asked whether the receptionist should connect him or take a message, “Amanda, very poised, very calm, turned to Judy and said, ‘I want you to do neither. I want you to give him a message. Tell him to go f--- himself.’ She said it very succinctly. Not in a mean way. Then she turned to me and said, ‘Now, where were we?’
This person says he soon realized May used taboo language daily, even when out in public, dressed in her tall white clerical collar. But he was so impressed with May’s actions he quickly overlooked her words. “Amanda in many ways turned that agency around.” He remembers being stunned when she ordered new stationery for the cash-starved organization and had “beautiful lapel pins” made for staff members to wear. She moved the headquarters to a mansion next to Marston House in Balboa Park. “Her attempt was to change the image of ECS. And she did . . . You know, a lot of times, if you look successful, people will think you are successful.” The result was steady growth.
TODAY, ECS’ BUDGET is approximately $20 million, with May overseeing almost 500 people working in 40 or so programs scat-tered throughout the county. For the past 12 months, she and about 75 other administrators have worked from the fourth floor of the brand-new City Heights Center built by philanthropist Sol Price at the corner of Fairmount and University. Visitors walking in the front door see an immediate reminder of the religious roots of this enterprise. A glass-walled chapel just beyond the receptionist commands a soaring view of the gritty neighborhood below and the East County mountains beyond.
May’s spacious office enjoys a similar view. One recent afternoon, the minister emerged from it to discuss her career and some of the allegations that have surfaced surrounding it. A heavy-set woman with curly red hair, May has the face of a girl: unlined and creamy-textured. Her richly timbered voice resonates with warmth and energy and merry amusement. But May grows somber when asked about the meeting that occurred this spring between seven former high-ranking ECS officials and County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. According to Jacob’s office, allegations aired at the March 4 session prompted the supervisor to contact the district attorney. A criminal investigation, still ongoing at press time, resulted.
Although both Jacob and the prosecutor conducting the investigation declined to discuss the allegations, several of the former employees who attended the meeting with Jacob agreed to do so. These individuals claim a “cult-like” atmosphere developed at ECS over the years. Even top managers refrained from questioning May’s decisions, they say, to avoid provoking her rage and retaliation.
She has a fierce temper and a fierce tongue, and people just didn’t have the courage,” says one of the former executives. He adds, “I think Amanda sees ECS as hers because of all her sweat equity and her years of sleepless nights. And once you start ‘owning’ something in that way, then you think you can do whatever you want.
In the meeting with Jacob, the former ECS executives told the supervisor about checks being issued by ECS to subcontractors, photocopied and submitted for government reimbursement—and then shredded instead of being mailed to the payees. “That’s what’s really being alleged now— that this was the pattern. . . . ECS would use the money but not pay the vendors,” says one former executive. He and others also contend that accounts were falsified in order to confuse various auditors. “E-mails have circulated . . . saying, ‘I have now cleansed the accounts payable, and we are ready for our audit.’ ”
Another focus of discussion at the meetings with Jacob and the district attorney was the number of relatives and friends hired by May at substantial salaries. “The nepotism was horrible!” says one of the former executives. May’s daughter, son, nephew and brother have all been on the ECS payroll at various times.
"I know of at least two people who were [May’s son’s] supervisors who refused to sign a time sheet for him because he hadn’t worked at all,” says Steve Pesicka, a former senior program manager for ECS alcohol and drug-recovery centers. “They were both terminated because they wouldn’t sign a time card for a guy who didn’t do any work."
Morris, the former vice president, says “every time things would start looking good financially,” May would hire another highpriced executive. “When you start hiring people at $85,000 a year, and you add benefits to that, in an organization that has no money, it’s a tough burden to pay. Yet at one time, we had eight senior executives making that kind of money. And some of them had very questionable portfolios of duties or accomplishments. I used to say it would be better if she just paid them to stay home. At least that way they wouldn’t have gotten in the way.”
May responds, “I recruit great staff.” While she acknowledges that some individuals over the years have been friends and relatives, she says, “I hired the best people I could find for the organization to meet the needs and goals of the organization.” To the suggestion that some of these highpaid executives did little work, May says, “I think the success of the organization kind of speaks for itself . . . We’ve had lots some of the allegations that have surfaced surrounding it. A heavy-set woman with curly red hair, May has the face of a girl: unlined and creamy-textured. Her richly timbered voice resonates with warmth and energy and merry amusement.
May responds, “I recruit great staff.” While she acknowledges that some individuals over the years have been friends and relatives, she says, “I hired the best people I could find for the organization to meet the needs and goals of the organization.” To the suggestion that some of these highpaid executives did little work, May says, “I think the success of the organization kind of speaks for itself . . . We’ve had lots of recognition.” Year after year, the public contracts have been renewed.
The allegations of financial wrongdoing “seem surprising,” she says, “if you understand the level of oversight that there is. . . . We’re in a highly regulated industry. . . . We have government contract inspectors who come in regularly. . . . We have audits every year in a lot of detail.” None of these has turned up any irregularities, May contends, including a recent county health department investigation. Moreover, she adds, neither she nor the agency has any reason to profit from the government contracts.
“It’s very important to us to do a good job. . . . [We’re] dealing with clients who are really disadvantaged, and we want them to have the best services. . . . And we want to continue providing those services. So our incentive is to do a good job.”
AT LEAST THREE OF MAY’S CRITICS who questioned the way the agency was operating say they went to the board of directors with their concerns, but each time, the board members reiterated their staunch support for May.
Archdeacon William Dopp also confirms that last fall Bishop Gethin Hughes took “anonymous letters” to the board and asked for an investigation into the allegations of wrongdoing at ECS. When the board declined, the bishop let the matter drop.
One of the individuals who wound up meeting with Jacob and the district attorney says, “For years, we all sat around the table, and we all said the same thing: We can’t tell anybody [about what was going on at ECS] because they won’t believe it. They’re going to see the side of Amanda that Amanda wants you to see. And they’re going to say to themselves, ‘There’s no way!’ ”
This person continues, “I’ve seen people [May] didn’t like break down and cry in front of Amanda [expressing concerns about whether she was planning to fire them]. And I remember her just hugging the person. I was so touched. I thought, ‘That’s the Amanda I really want to see.’ And I remember the person walking out and her saying, ‘F------ weasel! I hate sniveling crybabies. I hate them!’ I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! You were faking that whole thing!’ ”
To the charges that she’s been two-faced —compassionate and pastoral one moment, cruel, manipulative and crude the next—May suggests that her dual roles as priest and administrator sometimes create dilemmas. “I genuinely care about the people who work for me and about our clients. . . . [But] I also demand excellence from my staff,” she says. “And frankly, I think it can be confusing for people to have both of those things going on at the same time.”
Asked about her scandalous language, May replies, “It kind of goes back to the same thing about priests: What is the role you’re in, in this conversation?” She nonetheless adds, “It’s a bad habit. It’s not something I’m proud of.”
May expresses confidence that the district attorney’s investigation will vindicate her. She sounds less optimistic about her prospects for succeeding Bishop Hughes, who has announced he will retire early next year. “I was honored to be nominated,” she says. “Do I think I would do a good job? I’d like to think so.”
However, no woman has even been chosen to be rector of a large church in San Diego, she points out, and only about a dozen Episcopal diocesan bishops nationwide are women. “If you were betting in Las Vegas, you wouldn’t be betting on it,” May says. “But on the other hand, when you’re dealing with the Holy Spirit, you never know what’s going to happen.”