Defrocked rabbi and alleged sex offender Marc Gafni said of one of his victims, “She was 14 going on 35.” This admission, as reported by The New York Times in a December 25 exposé, has triggered an avalanche of outcry from Gafni’s alleged victims and their supporters.
Also reported in The Times story, “A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey…is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch.” Back to Mackey in a moment.
The story has blown up Twitter and social media. In follow-up news stories in the New York Daily News and several Jewish publications, Gafni’s alleged victims and their supporters recount decades of his abuse. They describe how he has evaded capture by relocating, changing his name, disappearing as a disgraced rabbi, then reappearing years later as a new age guru.
A group of more than 100 rabbis launched an online petition, demanding that Whole Foods sever ties with Gafni. At the time of this writing, the petition has garnered more than 2800 online signatures:
James McRitchie, an activist investor emailed members of the company’s Board of Directors on New Year’s Day:
“Mr. Mackey has a fiduciary duty to WFM shareholders. His affiliation with Gafni and the center certainly put the reputation and value of WFM at risk.”
But voices of Gafni’s supporters have been noticeably quiet amidst the uproar. Most noticeably M.I.A. is Gafni’s most enthusiastic ally, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market.
So what does Whole Foods have to say about all this?
Michael Silverman, Whole Foods Market Global Corporate Communications, emailed:
“John Mackey’s involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is his personal business and does not represent an endorsement or support for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom by Whole Foods Market.”
A similar statement appears on John Mackey’s Whole Foods blog:
“My involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is conducted strictly in my personal life…”
But Mackey’s and Whole Foods’ statements, characterizing the CEO’s relationship with Gafni as “personal,” are questionable.
You see, Mackey is Board Chair of Gafni’s nonprofit Center for Integral Wisdom. So he’s legally on the hook. On the hook for what, you ask? Well, for all business of the nonprofit. But especially for this:
The IRS prohibits tax-exempt organizations from engaging in commercial, for-profit business activities. A website for the CIW’s Success 3.0 Summit says, “Success 3.0 is an independent LLC generated by the Center for Integral Wisdom,“ and “John Mackey, (Board Chair CIW).”
And the Office of the California Attorney General granted Gafni’s CIW exemption from registering with the state, as nonprofits are required to do. The Office of the AG confirmed that CIW is exempt because it is “operated primarily as a religious organization.”
But on January 5, 2016, the Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper, reported Gafni saying, “I’ve left the spiritual teaching world and am functioning as the president of an activist think tank.”
Has Gafni told the Attorney General that he’s no longer heading up a religious organization, but rather, a think tank?
Complaints were submitted on January 11 to the IRS and California Office of the Attorney General, questioning the CIW’s status as a religious organization, and “generating” what appears to be a for-profit enterprise: the Success 3.0 Summit.
Speakers at the 2014 Summit included Alanis Morissette, Arianna Huffington, Zappos CEO Tony Hsiegh, and Michael Franti of the band Spearhead. I’d imagine they weren’t paid their speakers’ fees in organic kale chips.
Here’s the point: Regardless of whether the IRS or California Attorney General find any wrongdoing or decide to take any formal action against CIW, Mackey needs to divorce himself from Gafni and resign his board seat on the think tank. Why? Well, besides singing the praises of a guy who told a reporter, “She was 14 going on 35,” there’s this:
Customers, investors, and partners of Whole Foods, an $11 billion grocery giant, do not make a distinction between the CEO and the company. Perception is reality: Mackey is the company. He can be quietly nibbling on artisan cheese in the dairy aisle. He is still the face of Whole Foods.
According to Wikipedia, John Mackey’s net worth is $100 million. Being a co-founder and CEO comes with $100 million worth of privileges. And a few limitations. One of these restrictions is making sure your relationships — personal or otherwise — don’t tarnish the reputation of the company, arguably its most valuable asset.
Mackey’s relationship with alleged sex offender Gafni, given the current media hurricane, is giving Whole Foods a bad name. Whole Foods’ reputation is in hot water. And that’s even worse than $6 asparagus water.