In October of last year, Mary K Mart hung up her red wig and high heels. She was done hosting drag-bingo fundraising events for a nonprofit she'd worked with for 12 years.
In October of this year, Mary, the alter ego of Randy Light, received a cease-and-desist letter from her former employer's attorney, demanding that he stop disparaging the organization.
"You are entitled to your own opinions and to broadcast them far and wide," Sarah L. Ford, an attorney with Parker Poe, wrote on Oct. 28. "But the law does not allow you to make damaging statements (verbally or in print) that you know to be false."
There's no question that the outspoken Light has made and continues to make disparaging statements about the Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina—on Facebook, on the nonprofit's Guidestar page, to the local media. The issue is whether those statements are, in fact, false.
Light's central allegation, that the nonprofit owes him and other employees money, is an agreed-upon fact. But on social media, Light has portrayed the alliance as a shambles, plagued by an indifferent board of directors and declining revenues and unwilling or unable to meet its obligations. The nonprofit, on the other hand, says it's getting back on its feet, and Light's online vitriol isn't helping.
Since 1989, the alliance has provided care, prevention and advocacy services to people living with HIV/AIDS. For most of its existence, the alliance's reputation has been sterling; the drag bingos and other events it has hosted, along with grants from the state and local governments, have raised millions of dollars that go to case management, housing and feeding people with HIV, and providing free HIV testing and prevention advice. But after the Great Recession took hold, fundraising dried up, and by 2014, this once-renowned charity—a Raleigh-based institution that in 2012 had an operating budget of $2 million—hit the rocks. After an accounting scandal in which the alliance fell behind on its payroll taxes by nearly $210,000, the state and Wake County pulled roughly $400,000 in funding in September 2014. The alliance was forced to furlough its staff for nearly two months, and now its leaders are trying to rebuild.
Light, meanwhile, has been complaining loudly that the nonprofit is more than a year late in paying him $1,465 in accrued vacation time. The nonprofit's board chairperson, Melanie Dubis, acknowledges that this is true. She says the alliance will pay Light and nine other employees who are owed money before the end of this year.
But Light says that's not good enough. "I wish the agency the best, I hope they continue to grow and thrive and provide these needed services," he says. "But they should have already taken care of the folks who were with them a year ago when they were going through this huge financial crisis."
If anything, the cease-and-desist letter made him all the more adamant that the alliance be called to account.
"I feel I have been as patient and quiet as I need to be at this point," Light wrote last month to alliance board member Barbara Boney Campbell in a private Facebook message, which he then supplied to the INDY. "I have lost faith in many in this community... and will continue to post as I see necessary... and I have taken the high road only to be disrespected."
"You know that you don't look as good as you could when you write about it on Facebook for other people to see," Campbell replied. "Airing dirty laundry in public is never the right thing to do."