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Mercy Corps Overhauls Legal, Compliance After Co-Founder Probe

June 11, 2021, 6:58 PM

Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid organization that last month issued a report delving into sexual abuse allegations involving its late co-founder, has added a top in-house lawyer to its executive leadership.

Alexa Holmes, senior associate general counsel for the Wildlife Conservation Society, is poised to join Mercy Corps as its next general counsel June 21.

Holmes is relocating to Washington from Kampala, Uganda, where the former Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton associate has lived with her family since 2011, Lynn Hector, a Mercy Corps spokeswoman, told Bloomberg Law.

“Alexa has spent her career as an international lawyer in the for-profit and not-for-profit sector,” Hector said in a statement disclosing her hire.

Holmes joins a Mercy Corps staff that now includes Steven Linick, a former federal prosecutor and inspector general at the State Department until he was ousted a year ago by President Donald Trump in the aftermath of his impeachment trial acquittal.

Hector said the Washington-based Linick was hired by Mercy Corps last fall to fill the nonprofit’s newly created position of chief ethics and compliance officer.

The injection of new in-house talent comes after Mercy Corps has parted ways with several executives over the last year.

Those departures include former general counsel Jeremiah Centrella, who resigned in early 2020 as the Portland, Ore.-based charity sought to move forward from allegations related to Ellsworth Culver, a co-founder of the charity who died in 2005. His daughter, Tania Culver Humphrey, accused Culver of sexual abuse and described instances of girls being exploited in other countries where Mercy Corps operated.

Holmes spent more than 15 years in-house with the Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit based out of the Bronx Zoo in New York City. She most recently served as the Society’s “principal in-house attorney for the organization’s Africa portfolio, based out of Uganda,” Hector said.

Mercy Corps’ new top lawyer has experience handling corporate and litigation matters, said Hector, noting that Holmes has worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome and been a special consultant to the legal counsel on the closure of the UN’s oil-for-food program in Iraq.

Mercy Corps appointed a new CEO last year in Tjada D’Oyen McKenna, a former McKinsey & Co. analyst and executive at American Express Co. and General Electric Co. who also was a senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

McKenna has said publicly she believes the allegations put forth by Culver Humphrey, which have been chronicled in detail by The Oregonian.

The series of stories starting in October 2019 from the newspaper in the charity’s hometown of Portland led to the immediate resignations of Mercy Corps’ former CEO Neal Keny-Guyer, senior legal counsel and corporate secretary Barnes Ellis, and board member Robert Newell. The latter also resigned from the partnership at Davis Wright Tremaine, where Newell was a Portland-based litigator.

Ellis, a longtime Stoel Rives partner in Portland, was hired by Mercy Corps as general counsel in 2010. He and Newell were reportedly already aware of the allegations by Culver Humphrey prior to late 2019. Newell, a Mercy Corps board member since 1981, had been informed in the 1990s. Ellis concluded in December 2018 that “there was insufficient evidence to require any further action” by the organization.

Changing of the Guard

In a resignation letter obtained by The Oregonian, Ellis said that “no one was more shocked” by the newspaper’s reporting than he was and “no one is feeling more humbled in light of what has unfolded.”

Centrella, hired by Mercy Corps as an associate general counsel in 2010 before taking over its top in-house legal role a half-dozen years later, joined the law firm Nichols Liu a year ago this month as a partner in Washington. Nichols Liu is the same firm that Mercy Corps hired in late 2019 to conduct a review of the organization’s sexual exploitation and abuse policies.

Nichols Liu and consulting firm Vestry Laight issued their findings and recommendations to Mercy Corps, whose board issued a February 2020 statement acknowledging its shortcomings in addressing addressing Culver Humphreys’ claims. The National Football League’s Washington Football Team and USA Weightlifting have also recently retained Vestry Laight to advise on diversity and inclusion issues.

Vijaya Gadde, chief legal officer at Twitter Inc., has been a member of the board at Mercy Corps since 2018. The nonprofit has also brought on a new deputy general counsel in Andrew Morgan, who prior to joining Mercy Corps a year ago this month was a legal program director at the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation in Washington.

Hector, the Mercy Corps spokeswoman, said after Centrella’s resignation last year the nonprofit tapped retired Holland & Knight partner Donald Zarin in Washington to be its interim general counsel. Zarin is a white-collar defense and corporate compliance expert who was once head of Holland & Knight’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act team and co-head of the firm’s international trade practice.

Mercy Corps issued a more detailed response this past May 19 regarding the alleged actions of its co-founder and the final results of an independent investigation conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh’s Freeh Group International Solutions LLC. The 31-page report by the Freeh Group, a risk management firm acquired last year by AlixPartners, is available on Mercy Corps’ website.

The Freeh Group report doesn’t name either Centrella or Ellis but does detail Newell’s various interactions with Culver Humphreys based on the former Davis Wright partner’s previous conversations with Vestry Laight.

Newell declined to be interviewed by the Freeh Group, which included a quote from him recalling his thoughts on what Culver Humphreys wanted by bringing forth the allegations against her father: “I never got any sense that she wanted something from Mercy Corps, either by way of termination of him or money or a letter of apology or, you know, whatever, I never got any sense of anything like that.”

Mercy Corps, which like many nonprofits relies upon outside law firms to provide pro bono legal services, hasn’t yet disclosed the cost of its internal inquiries.

The most recent federal tax filing by Mercy Corps shows that Centrella received more than $249,000 in total compensation in his role as general counsel and assistant corporate secretary during 2018-19, while Ellis was paid roughly $161,000 that fiscal year for serving as senior legal counsel and corporate secretary.

The nonprofit’s online jobs board currently has an opening for a manager for case intake and management in its ethics and compliance group. Hector, the Mercy Corps spokeswoman, confirmed that former Palantir Technologies Inc. business development executive Desiree Pipkins, who worked for the 2016 Clinton-Kaine presidential campaign, joined the organization in January as chief of staff.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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