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LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Arizona is back. So is the leader who many blame for its collapse

Equality Arizona has for more than 30 years been a powerful voice for LGBTQ+ rights at the state Capitol. The nonprofit hosted star-studded events, raised millions of dollars, and worked to sway lawmakers in the name of equal rights for the queer community.

But then, last year — without any press coverage — Equality Arizona was gone. The organization lost all of its staff and was on the verge of completely folding. It caught the notice of at least one local journalist.

Joseph Darius Jaafari is founder and editor-in-chief for Lookout, an investigative nonprofit that covers Arizona’s LGBTQ+ communities. He wrote a story about how Equality Arizona is now back — but with the leader who many say led to its downfall, and spoke more with The Show about the issue.

Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: Let’s start with the impact that Equality Arizona has had over the years. What did this organization mean to the LGBTQ+ community?

JOSEPH DARIUS JAAFARI: So it’s one of the longest running queer advocacy groups in Arizona. And when we’re talking about its impact, I mean, they really had far-reaching impact. We’re talking about implementing or helping to implement nondiscrimination audiences across multiple cities, really advocating for stuff at the Capitol when it came to really bad laws that were trying to limit the rights of queer people across Arizona. It had a lot of really great impact over over its stretch of 30 years.

GILGER: So you noticed when it was gone and and started kind of digging into the story behind why that might be and found basically that it's back, right?

JAAFARI: We didn’t really get tipped off. When we started to Lookout, we were actually a partner with Equality Arizona content partner because of our Eyes on the State newsletter. They were giving us some content about what was going on at the Capitol. They were trying to, because the entire purpose was with Equality Arizona to teach people about how bills work across Arizona. And all of a sudden it just kind of folded. And so we lost our content partner. So we got a bit of a tip off in that way.

But when that happened, we were under the impression — or at least I was under the impression — that it was completely gone. And then a number of different editors at different news outlets have called me and said, “What’s going on? I’m trying to get a hold of somebody and there’s nobody there.” And then, leading into this really divisive election year and also what’s happening in the Capitol right now with the rise of more anti-LGBTQ bills being proposed, there was a really big worry that there wasn’t somebody from Equality Arizona to be there.

GILGER: So tell us about this story. You ended up reporting and talking to a lot, Michael Soto, this former leader of Equality Arizona, who is now bringing it back. And some are not so happy about this, right?

JAAFARI: Right. I mean, so what we found as we were leaked hundreds of internal investigation documents that showed that under the leadership of Michael Soto, that the organization saw tremendous growth.

But at the same time, he was being accused of … holding a different job in a different state, in Seattle, and then also lying about it to staff. He was accused of misspending funds that weren’t there, as well as spending money on things that weren’t authorized.

And left with Equality Arizona leading into 2023 with over $150,000 in debt. They had drained their reserves. And in September of 2022, the board quietly dismissed him.

GILGER: So he’s back now, and he talked to you extensively here for this story. What did he have to say about all this, all these accusations?

JAAFARI: Well, to be clear, Soto says that everything that was given to us is a lie, or that it was misconstrued or that it was proven wrong. However, a lot of what his responses to us were were really in line with a nondisclosure agreement that was required to be signed by everybody who was involved in the investigation. And the nondisclosure agreement exactly says what the response was that we got from Soto, as well as different board members who couldn’t speak on record, but then did say like Soto had resigned from his position, there was no investigation, there was nothing like this.

But in fact, we found all the documents that showed there was an investigation into his conduct, as well as the allegations made against him by former staff. And he was dismissed from his job.

GILGER: So he denies this. But tell us about the state of the organization now. As you mentioned, he was let go by the board after that investigation. How did he come to take over again, to bring it back? He’s now the executive director again and board president, right?

JAAFARI: Yeah. So we actually don’t have a full understanding of this. So our sources have said that the board was facing financial liability because of the debts that Equality Arizona had at the very beginning. And so they wanted to distance themselves away from the financial liabilities that they had as board members, and so they brought Soto back on simply to distance themselves.

Soto told us that he was asked to take over because there was nobody left in charge and that “I had nothing to do with financial problems.” But people who are close to the board, as well as people who are very familiar with the situation, told us that it very much had to do with financial problems at the company.

GILGER: So where does this leave the organization in terms of the work to be done?Like you mentioned, what’s happening now, we’re in a very consequential election year. There are a lot of bills sort of aimed at the LGBTQ+ community, at the state Legislature that are being debated. What’s Equality Arizona’s role now?

JAAFARI: That’s a really good question. Because for the longest time, you’d see people from Equality Arizona at the Capitol. Last year, the interim executive director after Soto had been pushed out, Jeanne Woodbury, she was at the Capitol for every single bill that was against the community and speaking out against it.

There have been accusations that Soto just does not show up to the Capitol. And yesterday, for the first time, we saw Soto at the Capitol during a bill that is aimed to officially establish only two genders in the state and state rules.

So he was there. As far as what is the purpose of Equality Arizona now, we just don’t know. During our conversation with Soto, during my conversation with Soto, he said that it’s very much kind of how the organization is kind of at where it was in 2018. So with almost no funds and trying to build up into this really powerhouse advocacy group.

We’ll see if that happens. I mean, it’s a tough world to raise money. I think that’s why Jeanne Woodbury stepped down last year because there wasn’t a lot of money to be raised at this time. And so I guess we’ll just have to see.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.