Palm Beach Chamber prez apologizes to Mar-a-Lago for director’s remarks


Highlights

PB Chamber director Laurel Baker had urged charities to “have a conscience” about booking at Mar-a-Lago.

The president of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Mar-a-Lago’s executive on Monday apologizing for comments made by Executive Director Laurel Baker, who recently urged charities to “have a conscience” about holding events at the Palm Beach venue owned by President Donald Trump.

Baker told The Palm Beach Post last week that she had received mostly positive feedback for her comments, which were punctuated when more than a dozen charities pulled their events from Trump’s Palm Beach club. But the letter from Carrie Bradburn reflects some heartburn at the business group.

No chamber board members have publicly reprimanded Baker. But sources have told The Post that at least one chamber board member, Dale Hedrick, of Hedrick Brothers Construction, was angered by Baker’s comments. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Sources said within the past few days Hedrick had told local business leaders he wanted the chamber board to demand Baker retract her comments — or even fire her — for criticizing Trump’s reaction to the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va.

The board is set for a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, at which time Baker’s comments are expected to be discussed.

In her Aug. 21 letter to Mar-a-Lago managing director Bernd Lembke, Bradburn said the chamber’s three-member executive committee regretted Baker’s comments, first reported by The Palm Beach Post.

“Please rest assured that the board of directors and members of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce did not endorse or approve Mrs. Baker’s comments to the media,” Bradburn wrote. “We apologize for any perceived association between those comments and the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce.”

Earlier this month, neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched through the northwestern Virginia town that is home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. On Aug. 12, a suspected white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.

Trump initially said “many sides” were to blame for the violence, then specifically criticized the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis two days later after a backlash to his initial statement. Then, on Aug. 15, he defended some of those protesting in Charlottesville as “very fine people” who were simply advocating for the right to display Confederate memorials and symbols.

On Aug. 17, however, the Cleveland Clinic announced it was pulling its annual gala from Mar-a-Lago.

In an exclusive interview that same day, Baker said other charities should re-examine their core purpose for guidance about how to react to Trump’s comments. In particular, she called out charities that advocate for social justice, the disabled, the poor and the sick.

“If you have a conscience, you’re really condoning bad behavior by continuing to be there,” Baker said. “The integrity of any organization rests on their sound decisions and stewardship.”

“Look at your mission statement,” Baker said. “Are you living up to it?”

It is not specifically clear whether charities were persuaded by Baker’s remarks, or whether they were responding to private condemnation by major donors or whether they were sensitive to a growing social media outcry.

But since late last week, 16 charities have pulled their events from Mar-a-Lago for this winter charity season. In total, 21 charities have decided not to return to Mar-a-Lago.

Some have rescheduled events to other venues, while others, such as the Red Cross Ball, have elected not to hold fundraisers at all this season.

Mar-a-Lago is a member of the Palm Beach Chamber. So is Capehart Photography, the premier photography company for the island’s social and charitable events. Palm Beach Chamber President Bradburn is the owner of Capehart Photography.

Baker did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday, Bradburn said she could not comment on whether the board would take any action against Baker on Thursday.

“I don’t have any notion of how anything is going to play out until I have a board meeting,” Bradburn said.

Bradburn added that she was not aware that Hedrick had told others he wanted to have Baker retract her comments or risk being fired.

It’s not clear if other board members want to see the board take any action regarding Baker.

“I think everybody has the right to their opinion,” said Lori Berg, general manager of the Royal Poinciana Plaza on Palm Beach.

Roy Assad, president of Human Capital Group, a consulting firm, said he hasn’t discussed Baker’s comments with other board members.

“But I love Laurel and I have respect for her,” Assad said. “I’m waiting for the meeting to see if the board wants to do anything about this, one way or another.”

Assad added, “a lot of people” have given Baker credit for speaking out.

Indeed, some of the chamber’s 12 board members privately said they did not believe Baker will lose her job, given their long-standing affection and respect for her. Any change to Baker’s employment status must be voted on by the entire board, they said.

Several board members said they wouldn’t talk until the meeting.

John Bowers, of TD Bank, is on the chamber executive committee, and his name was on the letter to Lembke. But Bowers said he would not make any comment due to the upcoming meeting.

Neither would the Brazilian Court hotel’s Ashley Berry, also on the executive committee.

Carey O’Donnell, of the O’Donnell Agency, said it was “premature” for her to comment before the meeting.

Michelle Wilde, of The Breakers; Dan Hanley, of the Gunster law firm; and Patricia Lebow, of the Broad and Cassel law firm, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Board members Ava Van De Water, of Brown Harris Stevens; and Margrit Bessenroth, of Salon Margrit, were out of town and could not be reached for comment.

At the Economic Forum business meeting held Tuesday in West Palm Beach, several business and government leaders were vocal in their support for Baker.

“I think Laurel Baker is a rock star,” said West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio.

Muoio said Baker’s statement challenging charities to examine their mission statement for guidance “is right on target, and I commend the charities that decided to take their fundraisers elsewhere.”

Mary Lou Berger, a Palm Beach County commissioner, agreed. “Absolutely,” she replied when asked if she supported Baker’s comments.

Richard Rampell, a Palm Beach CPA, said he supported Baker’s comments “100 percent. She did a very courageous thing…She deserves the giraffe award for sticking her neck out so far.”

Rampell said as a matter of protocol, since Baker works for the chamber, “she should have probably gotten board approval before she said it, but the board should have approved something like that.”

Palm Beach Daily News staff writer Aleese Kopf contributed to this story.



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