Metro

Sunshine Lady’s charitable work for Warren Buffett clouded over

Emily Walsh Holland is accused of taking confidential information from Doris Buffett’s charity, which she said she got while working there. Above: Holland appeared in Boston Municipal Court earlier this month.
Emily Walsh Holland is accused of taking confidential information from Doris Buffett’s charity, which she said she got while working there. Above: Holland appeared in Boston Municipal Court earlier this month.

Doris Buffett made a big splash when she moved to the Back Bay a few years ago, asking for local volunteers to help give away her billionaire brother Warren’s fortune. The “Sunshine Lady,” as she’s known, wanted help reading the stream of letters the siblings get requesting money for everything from mortgages to medical bills to mobile homes.

But the 90-year-old matriarch’s health has declined precipitously since she relocated to Boston, including advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Her family limits her visitors, leaving several close friends feeling shut out and worried about her welfare.

Now, bitter internal feuding over Doris Buffett’s charitable work is raising questions about how her wealth is being managed in her diminished state, as some acquaintances watch with alarm at her new foundation’s spending on everything from six-figure salaries to $200-an-hour “leadership coaches” in the name of a woman known for her Midwestern thrift.

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On Tuesday, the feuding spilled into public view as a former top employee at Buffett’s new charity was arraigned in Boston Municipal Court on charges that she stole confidential information, including financial data and Doris Buffett’s medical records. Emily Walsh Holland, who pleaded not guilty, said the charges are retaliation by Buffett’s 39-year-old grandson after she reported possible employee theft from the foundation he helps oversee.

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“I believe I was terminated from my job — what I described as my dream job — because I had questions about the way the finances were being managed,” said Holland, 35, who insists the information she’s charged with stealing was given to her as part of her work.

The grandson, Alexander Buffett Rozek, said he has been trying to professionalize his grandmother’s charitable work since she moved to Boston in 2015 and he increasingly began handling her financial, legal, and medical affairs. He said he took Holland’s concerns seriously, but she wouldn’t accept the findings of an investigative firm that found no evidence to support them.

“At every point that we provide evidence to try to assuage her concerns and ultimately debunk her conspiracies, she enlarges the pie and says, ‘Oh, they must be in on it, too,’ ” Rozek said.

This is Rozek’s second clash with people involved in his grandmother’s charities over allegations of misusing Doris Buffett’s wealth. In December, he reached a private settlement with a trio of women in their 60s and 70s who served with him and Buffett as board members of her Sunshine Lady Foundation.

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He had accused them of mismanaging the $30 million charity, which an audit found had “weaknesses” in its financial oversight. They vehemently deny any wrongdoing and question his handling of his grandmother’s money. One of them, Rebecca Currie, 67, refers to Rozek as “Mister Bully Pants.” Another, Diane Grimsley, 70, said: “He just outmanned us with attorneys and was trying to destroy us.”

As part of the settlement, Rozek and his grandmother resigned from the board, leaving Buffett no longer affiliated with the foundation she created in 1996. Rozek has set up a second, separate foundation to continue his grandmother’s work of responding to letters from people seeking help.

Amid all the infighting, Warren Buffett, who as Berkshire Hathaway CEO is one of the world’s richest people with a net worth of about $80 billion, is now funding neither foundation. An assistant to Warren Buffett said he was not available for comment because he was preparing for his company’s annual shareholders meeting this weekend.

As a result, Doris Buffett’s new charity is funded entirely from her own considerable fortune — estimated at $50 million in Berkshire Hathaway stock as of late 2015. The original foundation will operate until its remaining assets are gone.

In keeping with her famously thrifty ways, Buffett’s original charity, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, has been a low-budget, low-tech outfit whose staffers mostly work remotely and whose highest-paid employee makes $75,000 a year. The new charity set up by Rozek, called the Sunshine Lady Humanitarian Grants Program and nicknamed the Letters Foundation, is a modern operation that rents space on Newbury Street, offers free chiropractor services for staff and volunteers, and pays some executives six-figure salaries.

(From left) Siblings Roberta, Doris, and Warren Buffett sat in the Back Bay home Doris moved to in 2015 to be closer to her doctors. Her health has declined precipitously since she relocated.
(From left) Siblings Roberta, Doris, and Warren Buffett sat in the Back Bay home Doris moved to in 2015 to be closer to her doctors. Her health has declined precipitously since she relocated.
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Holland shared documents with the Globe showing thousands of dollars spent on meals, laptops, “branding and marketing,” massage therapists, and other “employee appreciation” expenses at the new charity. By contrast, Doris Buffett was so frugal that she insisted all photocopies be made on used paper, board members of her former charity say.

Buffett moved to Boston in 2015, in part because she was in declining health and wanted to be closer to her doctors. In August 2016, she put out a call, under Rozek’s guidance, for Boston-area volunteers to read letters. Her other board members said they weren’t told in advance about that call-out and thought the extra work it would bring would be bad for her health.

Hundreds of people wrote to Buffett and “the sheer volume of volunteer letters was troubling her,” according to medical notes, and she wanted to “make them go away by sending a thank you letter with an ice cream voucher to each one.” Two weeks later, she had a “psychiatric episode” and was admitted to McLean Hospital in Belmont, the records show.

During a Globe interview in early August 2016, Buffett lamented her health woes, including cancer and cardiac problems, but was able to converse coherently.

Holland was hired in June 2017 as a $115,000-a-year associate director at the Letters Foundation, and, within months, she reported her suspicion that a fellow employee was using charitable funds for personal use. Rozek said the investigative firm K2 Intelligence concluded the allegations were “without merit.”

Through it all, the person making most of Doris Buffett’s decisions at the foundation and beyond has been Rozek, who lives in the Back Bay and manages a private investment firm called Boulderado Group. He has his grandmother’s power of attorney and advance medical directive.

In interviews with the Globe, Rozek strongly rejected accusations that he is mishandling her wealth or that the demands of his grandmother’s charitable work in Boston harmed her health. He said he is simply caring for a woman who has been like a mother to him, and wanted to clean up and modernize an organization that was overly casual in handling large amounts of money.

He defended the spending at Buffett’s new foundation, saying that the cost of free yoga sessions, for example, is “trivial” and that “my grandmother would love to know” such benefits were being offered to show appreciation for its workers.

“I stand behind the budget we have,” said Rozek, who is not paid by the foundation, adding that getting high-quality employees requires paying “a living wage.”

He acknowledged being at the center of repeated clashes over his grandmother’s foundations. He said the Sunshine Lady board members he settled with weren’t fulfilling Buffett’s charitable mission.

“They wanted to run the foundation their way,” said Rozek. “It’s about control, access, being the one to call the shots, trying to manipulate my grandmother.”

The women just as vigorously reject those claims.

“I would swear on a stack of Bibles standing on a pile of burning timbers that we only ever did what Doris wanted — only ever, ever, ever,” said board member Mitty Beal, 68, who is also the Sunshine Lady Foundation’s executive director and a co-trustee, with Rozek, of Buffett’s will.

Doris Buffett with grandson Alexander Buffett Rozek, who said he has tried to professionalize her charitable work.

What Doris Buffett would say about all this will probably never be known: Her medical records show she has severe dementia, and one of her caretakers said it would be “hard for her to put a sentence together now.” Rozek declined to answer whether Buffett is mentally competent, citing family privacy.

But there’s no question that Doris Buffett now plays little of the role she did in 2006, when she and her younger brother Warren launched their philanthropic partnership.

In those days, she decided which letter writers asking for financial assistance were worth funding, and he would foot the bill — to date, at least $12 million.

Her goal was to give relatively small but “life-changing” grants to people who’d fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. Over the years, she has paid out thousands of gifts averaging $4,800 each for used cars, utility bills, tooth extractions, funerals, and other necessities.

Irreverent and opinionated, Doris Buffett wouldn’t fund smokers or gamblers, and didn’t hesitate to lecture grant applicants about what she considered wayward lifestyles. She once said she would pay for an unwed couple’s trailer repairs only if they got married (they declined and threatened to sue her).

For a while, Doris Buffett stored the letters in her linen closet and relied on “reading circles” in Fredericksburg, Va., where she lived, and Maine, where she had a second home, to review requests. The foundation touted its homespun appeal, but e-mail correspondence reviewed by the Globe shows there were internal concerns that the program needed stricter standards and was vulnerable to scams. There were even discussions about whether to end the endeavor.

Still, after Buffett moved to Boston, Rozek created a new website for the program and put out the mid-August 2016 call for local helpers, saying he wanted to reinvigorate the letter-reading effort. The charity’s other board members said they were blindsided by those moves.

Two weeks later, after Doris Buffett’s admission to McLean, 16 of her friends — including board members Beal, Currie, and Grimsley — received an e-mail directing that any contact with Buffett go through Rozek, leaving them unsure of her whereabouts or condition.

Soon after, the three women voted to discontinue the letters program. Rozek was enraged. He set up the new nonprofit, the Letters Foundation, to continue the work without them.

After a year of legal wrangling, the two sides reached an agreement last December: Rozek and Buffett resigned from the Sunshine Lady Foundation board, and the foundation paid about $140,000 to cover start-up costs for Buffett’s new Boston charity.

But board member Grimsley is still dismayed, saying, “Besides loving his grandmother, he’s building an empire and getting control.”

For his part, Rozek said, discussing his clash with the women touches on “raw nerves and pus.”

Doris Buffett in 2016.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Doris Buffett in 2016.

Rozek said he had to cut off direct contact between his grandmother and close friends such as Beal because they were exacerbating Doris Buffett’s mental decline by discussing sensitive issues with her, such as her mixed feelings about her move to Boston.

He added, “It’s easy for people who don’t know what’s going on and don’t have the responsibility of her care to sit on the outside and throw stones.”

Several people who are no longer allowed to contact Doris Buffett directly reached out independently to the Globe to express concern about her. Josiah Rowe, 90, of Fredericksburg, Va., who had been dating Doris Buffett for several years, said he has not been permitted to communicate with her since August 2016.

“I assume she’s being well taken care of,” he said, “but I think she would be really concerned that things are being done in her name and she’s not party to doing them.”

Rozek said Buffett is well cared for, with private security managed by former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis and round-the-clock nursing care at her home, a $5 million Beacon Street condominium she bought in 2016.

Rozek also said Buffett has regular contact with select family and friends and takes “field trips around town,” providing the Globe with photos showing her on various outings in her wheelchair.

And Rozek said her new Letters Foundation has given away $3 million since 2016, from $266 for a freezer to $75,300 for a handicap-accessible car. Ultimately, he said, the “overwhelming bulk” of Buffett’s estate will go to charity, as she had publicly vowed to do.

“She entrusted me with that responsibility and I will see it through,” Rozek said, adding that “fulfilling her wishes has turned out to be much more complicated than I ever imagined.”

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SachaPfeiffer.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that an investigative firm headed by former Boston police superintendent-in-chief Daniel Linskey conducted an investigation for Doris Buffett’s Letters Foundation.