Flap Over Intern Infuriates Frank
Controversy ‘Unjustified,’ He Says
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is accusing the nation’s largest internship placement organization of misleading him over the firing of a program supervisor allegedly dismissed for assigning a student from a conservative college to the openly gay lawmaker’s office.
Frank is particularly angered that a decade-old scandal involving him and a male prostitute has been dragged into the fracas, something the Congressman says has no bearing on the matter at hand.
“I think that it is totally unjustified,” Frank said in an interview. “I’ve had 200 interns in my office over the years, and nothing has ever happened. I really resent the assertion that I am a bad influence on my interns.”
At issue is the January 2003 firing of David Halpern, a program supervisor at the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. His lawyer, S. Micah Salb, charged that Halpern’s firing violates employment anti-discrimination provisions in the D.C. Human Rights Act.
Halpern filed a lawsuit last month against his former employer in District of Columbia Superior Court and is seeking lost wages, emotional damages and reinstatement. The Washington Center, the well-respected internship organization, denies any wrongdoing.
Halpern believes he was fired for trying to place an intern from Calvin College, a conservative Christian Reformed Church-affiliated institution in Grand Rapids, Mich., in Frank’s office.
The lawsuit states that Halpern’s supervisor, John Kornacki, “reprimanded” the employee for trying to place the student in Frank’s office.
“[Kornacki] then stated that the student attends a Christian university and that he did not know ‘how well that would play’ if he was placed with Congressman Barney Frank,” contends the lawsuit.
The very next day, Jan. 10, 2003, Halpern was fired, according to the lawsuit.
Halpern claims that later the same day, another Washington Center official told him, “regardless of what we think is right or wrong, it is in the actual handbook of Calvin College that homosexuality is wrong and we have to abide by it.”
Phil deHaan, a Calvin spokesman, confirmed in an interview that the student’s professor found Frank’s past relationship with a live-in male prostitute — which earned the lawmaker a House reprimand in 1990 — of particular concern.
The professor, according to deHaan, was practicing “due diligence” in making sure the college’s students were placed in the “best possible internship situation.”
He added that the student, Daniel Palmer of Napa, Calif., interviewed with Frank’s office and when he found out that his intern duties would be limited to “answering phones and copying,” he decided to take a position with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), where he would be able to work on gay rights-related issues — a policy area he was interested in.
Frank wrote a letter to Washington Center President William Burke in July expressing his concern that his sexual orientation may play a role in the Washington Center’s internship placement decisions.
“I write because I am disturbed by what may be prejudice based on sexual orientation, and particularly because I am deeply troubled by the notion that I would have been considered unfit to host an intern,” Frank wrote last summer.
Frank said in the interview last week that he did not get a timely response. “I was disappointed,” said the lawmaker, who would still like a meeting with Burke. “They didn’t answer me at first.”
In a letter Burke wrote to Frank in late October, he explained that the original draft of his response to the Congressman was “inadvertently lost.”
The Washington Center insists that Halpern’s dismissal was not influenced by the professor’s concerns or Frank’s sexual orientation. “These administrative decisions were clearly reductions in force; nothing more and nothing less,” Burke wrote.
But Frank said the Washington Center initially misled him, at first making it seem like Halpern’s dismissal was tied to the fact that the intern coordinator had placed the Calvin student with a non-Michigan Member. The college does not have such a policy.
The Washington Center’s attorney, Joel Bennett, said in an interview that the sole reason for the termination was “because of a reduction of force.” He noted that other Washington Center employees were downsized around the same time as Halpern’s dismissal.
Salb believes that the fault lies more with how the Washington Center handled the situation.
“Whatever disagreement I have with Calvin College with their views on homosexuality, the issue we are dealing with involves the Washington Center’s response to Calvin College’s views,” Salb said. “And their response is illegal in the District of Columbia.”
Regardless of the where the truth lies, Frank said he is upset over his past being dragged into the case. And Salb says it should have never been a concern in the first place.
“Calvin College is saying that it expressed concern over the student working for Congressmen Frank that arose over an incident from 13 years ago,” said the attorney. “What is happening now does not at all involve Congressman Frank’s past from 13 years ago.”