For more than 40 years, Pride Houston 365, the nonprofit behind the annual pride parade, has filled spaces in Houston with joyful celebrations focused on visibility, inclusion and advancement of the LGBTQ+ community.

Behind the scenes, Pride Houston has been in turmoil.

The nonprofit’s current leaders have struggled to keep the organization afloat amid the pandemic and an ongoing lawsuit they filed against Pride Houston’s first executive director, who was fired in 2021. Court papers accuse Lorin “Lo” Roberts and two former employees of misappropriating more than $150,000.

“The organization would like to move on, and we would like the community to heal,” said Kendra Walker, Pride Houston’s current president. “But we are not going to move on without accountability because she has made the last two celebrations we’ve had 10 times as hard.”

Messages left with the three defendants and their lawyers weren’t returned. They filed responses to the lawsuit denying the allegations.

The internal conflict comes at a time when LGBTQ+ communities have been targeted by state laws banning drag shows and transgender care for children, restricting athletic participation and competition by biological sex, and other actions such as book bans that limit access to literature that reflects the experiences of diverse communities.

Add to that a pandemic that halted most Pride events; a political climate that scared away potential donors, sponsors, and attendees; and post-pandemic inflation, and Pride Houston found itself faced with a steep decline in revenue and savings, according to the organization’s publicly available tax returns.

In 2021, the organization sued Roberts, its former president and executive director, and two former treasurers, Jacob Siegel and Dustin Sheffield. Pride Houston alleged in court filings that the three defendants colluded to misrepresent and hide expenditures, payments and the overall financial standing of the organization.

The case against Siegel eventually was settled, but the rest of the lawsuit has dragged on after repeated delays.

After Roberts was fired in June 2021, Walker said she and another board member personally lent Pride Houston thousands of dollars – $30,000 on her part – to keep the organization afloat.

“If you ask why I personally did it, it was personal for me because I believe in queer, Black women of color and I believe in their ability to lead,” Walker said. “And, honestly, I didn’t want Pride to fall under the leadership of someone who I did not feel was representative of how queer Black women can lead and be successful.”

Leadership unravels

Roberts led the organization in an unpaid role as president since 2017, and in March 2020, the board offered her a paid position as their first executive director with an annual salary of about $61,000 and health benefits. Walker, who was part of the board at the time of Roberts’ hiring, recalls being one of her strongest supporters, considering the seemingly strong financial standing of the organization at the time.

Red flags appeared soon after the hiring, Walker said.

In August 2020, the board named Thasia Madison board president, court documents state. In that role, she was expected to oversee Roberts and help manage Pride Houston. But when Madison attempted to assume the role on Oct. 1, the lawsuit says Roberts refused to turn over proprietary records, mail, and access to most, if not all, of the organizations’ bank accounts, credit cards, social media, email and even administrative access to the website.

Roberts also refused to disclose her Pride-related expenses, failed to submit an internal audit of the organization’s financial standing, and didn’t provide copies of contracts and agreements with sponsors and vendors, the lawsuit alleges.

Sheffield was treasurer from 2018 to 2019 before being appointed by Roberts as an advisor to the board. In the lawsuit, the organization claims he approved unauthorized purchases using Pride Houston’s funds and failed to provide detailed reports and bank statements to the board. He locked the entire board out of financial accounts once Roberts transitioned to the executive director role, the lawsuit says.

  • Houston Pride Parade
  • The Houston Pride Parade

“Sheffield co-conspired with Roberts to steal money from Pride and misrepresent to the board of Pride the financial affairs of the organization,” the lawsuit states. 

Seigle, who served as treasurer between 2020 and 2021 and settled the allegations in this case earlier this year, was also accused of approving unauthorized charges using Pride Houston’s accounts; failing to verify expenditures; and not providing financial reports to the board. 

In July 2021, a judge granted Pride Houston’s request for a restraining order banning Roberts from accessing the organization’s accounts and assets or representing the organization in any form.

According to Walker, the board found several lines of credit and other expenses that it had not approved. Some credit accounts were maxed out and exceeded $30,000. Other expenses using Pride Houston’s funds were linked to unapproved travel out of state, or personal payments not linked to organizing any pride-related event.

All of this was happening amid the coronavirus pandemic, an already turbulent time that eventually would halt all large events and gatherings such as Pride celebrations. At the time of Roberts’ hiring, organizers were in the middle of putting together the 2020 celebration, and jumping into planning for 2021.

Roberts’ job included securing city permits, sponsors, vendors, volunteers and all the pieces that complete the annual festival and parade.

Planning for a “full-blown” celebration for 2021 still was underway, with Pride Houston hopeful the pandemic would subside by then.

Sponsors were secured, Walker recalls, with Roberts telling them and the board that all city permits were obtained.

That was not the case, the lawsuit alleges.

“On June 22, 2021, Defendant Roberts explicitly stated that she had obtained a permit. It was later discovered that Pride Houston had been denied the permit in writing,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant Roberts received said letter and had not informed the board of directors. The current president of Pride Houston, Thasia Madison, was able to secure permitting on or around July 1st, 2021.”

Walker said the board set out to write a letter to city officials in an effort to correct the problem, but soon learned the city had notified Roberts in 2018 that the route and location of the parade would need to change in coming years, requiring the organization to request new permits.

The organization eventually applied for the permits and received them about five days after Roberts was fired, Walker said, but by that point, the 2021 celebration had to be scaled back because of the ongoing coronavirus threat.

Some of the sponsorship funds were not collected in good faith by Roberts, Walker said, with the-then executive director promising a full event that she knew had not yet been permitted by the city.

In her response to the court, Roberts denied all of the plaintiff’s  allegations. Although the filed documents state she relinquished the passwords and access to accounts “within three days of her June 22, 2021 discharge,” it doesn’t address why that access wasn’t granted to the new president when Roberts’ role changed to executive director.  

The response, filed by Roberts’ attorney about a month after her termination, also says she didn’t receive compensation for some of the sponsorships she secured. It did not address the permitting problem that could have prevented the Pride celebration. 

“Roberts’ dynamic personality and people skills elevated Pride Houston to National Prominence,” her legal filing states. The claims of “breach of contract, fraud, conversion, etc. are false, misleading and flat out an attempt to avoid compensating Lorin Roberts for the large number of her earned sponsors and services she rendered to Pride Houston.”

Financial future

During Roberts’ leadership as president, between 2017 and 2019, Pride Houston reported that its assets nearly doubled to $310,000, and revenues increased from nearly $591,000 to more than $728,000 during the same timeframe, according to the nonprofit’s public tax records.

Its solid financial footing worsened during the pandemic, with reserves dropping to $195,000 and revenue plummeting to $226,500 in 2020. The same pattern continued the following year. The organization reported having nearly $76,000 in assets and more than $116,000 in revenue.

The latest tax records were not available before publication, but Walker said the board’s actions since taking over the reins have brought the organization back to a stable financial standing.

“After this year, we are 100 percent paid, and actually further in the black than when I sat on the board back in 2019,” Walker said. “So, we are truthfully solvent, meaning we can support our monthly obligations, we don’t owe anybody, and we have the seed money to start the 2024 planning.”

Planning for the 2024 Pride celebrations has not been without challenges.

Earlier this year, the organization announced plans to potentially move next year’s parade outside of the downtown area in hopes of prioritizing safety – mostly to protect the public from heat exposure, which is the main reason the 2023 event was only a parade and not a day-long celebration.

Walker said the idea of leaving the downtown area has been nixed, with the nonprofit opting instead to plan for two back-to-back evening events to deal with the summer heat. The festival would be held on a Friday, and the parade would remain on Saturday.

The cost of the two events is expected to exceed $800,000, up from this year’s cost of about $235,000 for the parade alone, Walker said. The organization used to budget between $400,000 to $600,000 for the full-day celebration – festival and parade – but after having heat-related emergencies and injuries in 2022, it was evident something had to change. 

Time to heal

With the lawsuit still dragging along, Walker said it’s unlikely there will be a legal resolution to a painful chapter of the nonprofit’s history any time soon.

The case was set to start trial in April, court records show, with the defendants expected to submit their discovery documentation and responses by March. Roberts’ counsel did not respond to these requests for production and the plaintiff filed for a 90-day extension of the trial.

Not much has happened since, with the plaintiffs awaiting these answers and in the meantime, Roberts’ attorney filing a motion to withdraw from the case. The judge signed orders granting Pride Houston’s request for $2,500 in attorney’s fees related to the delays.

Walker plans to move on from the role of president by 2025, potentially cutting short her four-year term by at least a year. But she said the board is in a much better position to choose a new leader, and Pride Houston is undergoing a full restructuring to enact stricter safeguards and protect its finances.

Pride Houston is healing from the turmoil, she said, and hopes to mend relationships within the community to renew the organization’s mission.

“Healing looks like reaching back out to those relationships,” Walker said. “Healing looks like putting the past behind. Healing looks like taking accountability.”

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Danya Pérez is a diverse communities reporter for the Houston Landing. She returned to Houston after leaving two years ago to work for the San Antonio Express-News, where she reported on K-12 and higher...