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"When I started with her, I fit the profile of someone to be taken advantage of," recalls Berk, a tall, thin man with a pageboy haircut and horn-rimmed glasses. "When I got out of jail, I no longer fit that criteria."
Berk also told Mandel that he planned to report his concerns to Medicare. A day later, he received a call from Tiffany Baugher, a therapy intern at ROHA, who had been told by co-worker Ty O'Malley that he overheard Mandel making arrangements to have Berk involuntarily committed to a mental institution in Oklahoma.
Baugher set up a meeting with Berk and O'Malley at Crossroads Market, a bookstore and coffee shop on Westheimer near Montrose. When he arrived, Berk told them how Mandel had tried to talk him into entering a local medical hospital for treatment of his eating disorder, which, according to her diagnosis, had thrown his blood sugar out of whack.
"We told him, 'Don't go back there,' " Baugher says, "and whatever you do, don't let them put you in the hospital.' "
He didn't, and by the end of that week, Berk had been discharged from the Wellness Program and had left the H.E.L.P. House. He says he's feeling better than ever. Baugher and O'Malley were summarily fired last month by Mandel, and have moved on to new jobs. But they haven't completely left their experience with JoAnne Mandel behind.
"You can move beyond the belief that you will always be a victim and be an artistic creator in your own life. TAKE A RISK ... Embrace those things in life you really deserve."
-- JoAnne Mandel, from a brochure for the River Oaks Health Alliance
To JoAnne Mandel, healing is nothing short of a transformation of the self. Even therapy sessions with her patients are laced with testimonials about her own "path of recovery."
ROHA's Web site -- www.InnerWisdom.com -- has a link to a "Message from the Founder and President," in which Mandel refers to an upbringing in an "unhealthy family system" which led to a personal struggle "to overcome extreme and overwhelming fear."
She found salvation in New Age studies, which she claims brought about "the resurrection of my soul from tragic experiences." Today, Mandel describes herself as a spiritual warrior and healer, someone guided by the teachings of prophets and philosophers. That's a characterization that might surprise a number of people whose auras have crossed paths with hers over the years.
Mandel had originally agreed to be interviewed for this story. But she canceled 24 hours before the scheduled appointment and had her attorney, Doug Sigel of Austin, contact the Press.. Last week, Sigel filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mandel, alleging that a handful of former employees and clients have conspired to destroy her business.
Sigel suggested, none too subtly, that the Press could become a party to that same litigation and urged that publication of this story be quashed, at least until "all the facts are in." That said, Sigel declined to identify those "facts" or to even discuss the basis of Mandel's lawsuit. He also turned down the offer to have his client give her version of events.
"I think everyone involved in this is going to be in very serious litigation," Sigel said, "so we need to be very careful about it.
"The fact is, she doesn't know exactly what she's being accused of, she doesn't know who's accusing her of it and she can't comment."
It would seem quite impossible for Sigel to file a lawsuit -- especially one that also alleges defamation of character -- if Mandel doesn't know who's saying what about her. And, of course, that's not really the case. She names as defendants a particular group of former employees and clients, all of whom have become her most outspoken critics: Ty O'Malley, Tiffany Baugher and Steven Berk, as well as former therapist Roxanne Kelly-King.
It's difficult to say whether Mandel really believes them guilty of "tortious interference," as the lawsuit alleges, or simply hopes she can frighten them into silence. Southwest Healthcare Services, O'Malley's current employer, is also named as a defendant in the suit. Mandel is alleging that, through O'Malley, the company has attained "proprietary treatment methods and trade secrets, and confidential information to ROHA's severe detriment." (A Press call for comment last week to Southwest Healthcare Services was not returned.)
Mandel might indeed have some legitimate concerns about the future of her business. Ty O'Malley says records that document Mandel's financial practices are in the hands of the FBI, and her lawsuit accuses O'Malley of stealing confidential files and documents. (The FBI, as is its usual practice, will neither confirm nor deny that it is investigating.) Susan Ray, a former H.E.L.P. House social worker, has filed a lengthy complaint with the Texas Board of Social Workers Examiners, asking that Mandel's license be revoked for violations of the profession's code of ethics.
That complaint apparently was also passed along to the city of Houston's Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program, which has given Mandel's nonprofit association close to $1 million in federal grants and loans since 1995. J.M. Allen, the HOPWA coordinator, says the city will be monitoring Mandel's use of its most recent grant to Mandel, $750,000 awarded in March to buy the H.E.L.P. House (Mandel has been renting units at the complex since September).