By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on June 9, 2018
Allison Black Cornelius placed the final touches on her self-portrait late Friday afternoon. For weeks, I had been trying to secure an interview with the Greater Birmingham Humane Society’s controversial chief executive officer. I made my first request for an interview on May 22, 2018. Two days later, Ms. Cornelius responded, via email, that she would be unavailable for an interview due to a scheduling conflict. She stated that GBHS Chairman Art Edge would give me a tour of the GBHS facility on Snow Drive in Birmingham, Alabama and would answer any questions I had about the organization. I accepted this offer.
My tour and first interview with Art Edge occurred on June 1, 2018. A follow-up interview with Edge occurred the next day, via telephone. Shortly after the interview concluded, I received an email from Ms. Cornelius stating: “I hope you enjoyed your tour of GBHS. I appreciate the time you took to tour GBHS and to talk with Art. You should also try to arrange a tour of GBHS hospital and teaching clinic on Princeton Way in Hoover that is run by Jerry Latham, DVM. The work Dr. Latham and the Auburn and Tuskegee vet students do as part of our team is quite remarkable. If I can be of assistance to you in the future don’t hesitate to call or email.”
On June 3, 2018, I published the first of five planned articles in this series of investigative reports. Titled, “GBHS: A Killing Zone For Animals In Need", the article documented GBHS’s “Unnecessary Euthanasia” (their words, not mine) of healthy dogs, cats and other animals, as reported in GBHS’s monthly Animal Census Reports.
The article also spotlighted Ms. Cornelius’ pitch for donor money to care for a room full of adorable kittens and an injured dog named “Pocahontas” that were featured in two passionate videos. GBHS acknowledges that the kittens were killed immediately after the videos were filmed. The organization also admits that Pocahontas died shortly after the filming, but disputes that the dog was euthanized. Several individuals who were GBHS employees at the time have contradicted GBHS’s publicly articulated account of Pocahontas’ death.
The article described the “unacceptable” physical condition of GBHS’s Woodlawn facility. In October 2015, Ms. Cornelius described the Woodlawn facility this way: “We've done the best we could. We've painted, cleaned, put air conditioning in over the summer... but it's just like putting lipstick on a pig .…”.
Finally, the article exposed Ms. Cornelius’ efforts to silence departing GBHS employees through the use of non-disclosure agreements. GBHS was never able to articulate any particular operational matter it wanted the affected employees to keep quiet about.
After the article was published, I renewed my efforts to interview Ms. Cornelius and avail myself of the “assistance” she offered me in her June 1st email. On Friday, Courtney Underwood, GBHS’s Director of Marketing and Outreach, called to inform me that Ms. Cornelius would not be interviewing with me because she was too busy focusing on the mission of the organization.
With that, Ms. Cornelius' self-portrait was complete. For the purposes of the articles in this series of investigative reports, Ms. Cornelius has defined herself by her words and deeds.
Who’s Really In Charge at GBHS?
GBHS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission “to promote respect for life through education and prevention of cruelty to animals and people.” As discussed below, the organization is failing in its mission to prevent cruelty to animals and people.
While GBHS has a 35-person board of directors that is charged with overseeing its corporate activities, the person who really runs GBHS is Allison Black Cornelius. Many “insiders” view Ms. Cornelius as an administrative tyrant who rules the organization with a dictatorial grip.
According to Board Chairman Art Edge, Ms. Cornelius enjoys the full confidence of GBHS’s board of directors. For the most part, the board members attend meetings every other month, assist with fundraising campaigns, and engage in branding GBHS’s public image through participation in community events. New members are selected by the existing board of directors and are appointed to serve two consecutive three-year terms.
Except for hiring the CEO, GBHS board members have no involvement in personnel matters. Such matters fall within the exclusive province of the CEO and her human resources coordinator.
When Ms. Cornelius was hired as CEO in January 2015, the board expected her to wind-down Blackfish, a private consulting company founded and headed by Ms. Cornelius. She was hired to serve as GBHS’s full-time chief executive officer. On its IRS Form 990 for 2016, GBHS reported that Ms. Cornelius spends 60 hours per week working as CEO at an annualized salary of about $133,933.
During his June 1st interview, Board Chairman Art Edge stated that Ms. Cornelius’ dissociation from Blackfish is complete. Yet, Ms. Cornelius continues to promote herself as Blackfish’s “President” on the company’s website. Ms. Cornelius' Linkedin profile lists her as Blackfish's "Principal". There is no discernible evidence that Blackfish has engaged in a wind-down of its business activities.
Ironically, Ms. Cornelius and Blackfish were consultants to GBHS during Karen Peterlin’s tenure as executive director. On July 25, 2014, Ms. Peterlin resigned her job after Blackfish identified a conflict of interest arising from a contract Peterlin reportedly awarded to her partner to provide dog-training services to GBHS. Citing “personal reasons”, Ms. Peterlin’s resignation was effective immediately. Ms. Cornelius was then tapped to serve as GBHS’s interim executive director. She became the permanent CEO on January 27, 2015.
According to confidential sources with personal knowledge of this leadership transition, Ms. Cornelius plotted Ms. Peterlin’s ouster in order to seize the top executive job for herself. As stated earlier, Ms. Cornelius has not made herself available to address this charge.
The Master of “Gaslighting”
Former GBHS employees have publicly described their interaction with Allison Black Cornelius in candid terms. According to these employees, Ms. Cornelius is the master of “gaslighting”, a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes the victim question his/her reality.
According to Dr. Stephanie A. Sarkis, Ph.D., N.C.C., D.C.M.H.S., L.M.H.C., gaslighting is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. Perpetrators tend to exhibit the following warning signs: (a) they tell blatant lies; (b) they deny they ever said something, even though you have proof; (c) they use what is near and dear to you as ammunition; (d) they wear you down over time; (e) their actions do not match their words; (f) they throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you; (g) they know confusion weakens people; (h) they project matters in a way that distracts others from the gaslighter's own behavior; (i) they try to align people against you; (j) they tell you or others that you are crazy; and (k) they tell you everyone else is a liar.
Phil Doster believes he was the victim of Ms. Cornelius’ gaslighting tendencies. Four years ago, Doster served as a Cruelty Prevention Officer at GBHS. His role was to build relationships in the community, across all racial, socioeconomic, and cultural lines, in an attempt to help people and their pets coexist happily, humanely, and with as little stress as possible.
In November 2017, Doster made the following public statements regarding GBHS:
“Many within the organization took issue with Ms. Cornelius’ leadership style. To the public, it appeared as if she was playing herself and the shelter out as a victim and an underdog. Behind closed doors however, she came across as loud, foul-mouthed, and direct. It was more than that though. From my perspective, Ms. Cornelius has a way of beating down those that work for her. Far too often, I saw the light extinguished in passionate animal advocates and humane shelter heroes. I, myself, started questioning why I was even involved in humane sheltering. I often wonder how many compassionate, brilliant people left the world of animal welfare as a result of Ms. Cornelius and what I now feel were her gaslighting tendencies. It’s often not until you escape a situation that you recognize how you were manipulated….”.
On June 4, 2018, Doster posted this poignant message on his Facebook page:
“As someone who has fought for shelters and tried to educate the public on the realities of pet overpopulation, let me give my thoughts. When GBHS proposed taking over Animal Control, it did so by having its 'CEO' and Executive Board cry for transparency. As I suggested to them at the time, for the public to understand the dire problems of pet overpopulation, we needed to provide an accurate portrayal of the sheer volume of intake and numbers euthanized. GBHS used this strategy to attain the animal control contract, but have now become less transparent than ever before. While staff may still work hard to care for the animals, the misdirection, exaggeration, and possibly deliberate lies that come from the mouth and keyboard of their 'CEO' and Board continue to damage animal welfare in central Alabama, and will do so for many years to come. That’s to say nothing of the abuse that this 'CEO' and her executive staff have perpetrated on human beings that worked tirelessly to help animals in their care. Personal attacks. Spreading false information about good people. Gaslighting them. Using their expertise and casting them aside. She is a narcissist abuser of people, and she shows her disrespect to you, the public, every time she provides inaccurate information ….”.
GBHS intake specialist Christy Patterson had this to say about gaslighting in a May 7, 2018 email to me:
“I have cried while reading your blogs because someone has finally recognized their behaviors as they should be seen -- disgusting. I worked for GBHS from August of 2014 until July of 2017. I was let go by Allison and offered a non-disclosure settlement but opted not to sign it. She told me ‘your life won’t be easy if you don’t.’ …. Stella Burton [and I] were let go on the same day ….. We still don’t know the official reasons for our dismissals but we were very outspoken about events happening within the walls of GBHS. Mainly during the Spring and Summer of 2017, things were exceptionally questionable. Creating videos with animals as PSAs and euthanizing them immediately after will haunt me for a long time. The level of gaslighting and verbal abuse the staff has to endure breaks my heart. They stay [at GBHS] because: (a) gaslighting is a paralyzing tactic, and (b) the staff wants so desperately to help animals that they tolerate behavior that they would not accept at any other job. At least, those were my reasons. I have many former employees, some fired and some who chose to leave, who have formed a comfort group, I guess you would call it. Many have received professional counseling stemming from working under [Cornelius'] tyranny ….. I was told by Allison that, by not signing my NDA, she would make sure I didn’t receive unemployment. She was successful ….. But, as ABC always told her staff, ‘You are either with me or against me!’ That keeps people quiet.”
On June 4, 2018, Ms. Patterson posted this comment on my June 3rd article:
“I would like to add that vets and LVTs did not determine which animals were euthanized. The clinic staff made those determinations and so did Admin. I could list dozens of people who instructed others to euthanize or took matters into their own hands because they were CETs. Some days the vet tech wasn’t even at Snow Drive and the vets didn’t make rounds until @ 4 PM. They euthanized animals all day. Often times, minutes after they were surrendered. It’s a bold face LIE to feed the public this idea that only vets and LVTs made those judgment calls. I even told them which ones to pull and they did. It was always excruciating for most of us to do yet much easier for others. Dogs were put down for being brown, for being black, for having docked tails, and those were NOT vets making these decisions.”
In the June 3rd article, we reported on a woman named “Ruth”. Her real name is known to me, but will not be disclosed for privacy reasons. Ruth is the licensed veterinary technician who was ordered to kill the room full of kittens as soon as Ms. Cornelius completed filming of her donor solicitation video featuring these kittens. Like the former GBHS employees mentioned in this article, Ruth has suffered emotionally and otherwise.
Ruth was fired at the end of July 2017 for associating with foster care providers who threw a “farewell” party for Stella Burton and Christy Patterson. Ms. Cornelius reportedly ordered Ruth’s boss to fire her.
Stay tuned as we take a journey past GBHS’s “Killing Zone for Animals in Need” and its “Gaslighting” of staffers. Our next article will explore a darker, more sinister side of GBHS.
PHOTO: GBHS CEO Allison Black Cornelius with Board Chairman Art Edge.