A conflict over the governance of the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Real Estate Professionals (NAGLREP) boiled over into public view in recent days, with critics saying founder and CEO Jeff Berger appears to have stacked his board with family members, and is purging both questions and the people who raise them.
For his part, however, Berger told Inman that the controversy amounts to bullying and negativity on the part of his critics.
Inman spoke to two agents and (now apparently former) NAGLREP members who said the issue first arose last month when Berger posted on Facebook about the coronavirus. Though some of the comments appear to have since been deleted and the nature of their content is not entirely clear, screenshots provided to Inman suggest Berger referred to Johns Hopkins University — which has done work on the outbreak — as a “fraud” and suggested the public was being “duped.”
One of the agents who spoke with Inman, Robert Peterson — who was speaking purely on his own behalf but works with Engel & Völkers in British Columbia, Canada — told Inman that he initially responded to Berger’s comments but his remarks were deleted. Peterson later approached a NAGLREP board member with his concerns about Berger’s coronavirus posts, but the board member replied that his status at the organization was only “honorary.”
That raised red flags for Peterson, who is also an attorney with a background in human rights advocacy, and he soon found himself in a private chat group with other NAGLREP members who had concerns about the organization’s governance.
Gene Brake, an eXp Realty agent based in Spokane, Washington, was also a member of that group. In addition to real estate, Brake has a background with non-profits and told Inman that after concerns arose, he looked up the government documents NAGLREP had to file in order to become and remain a non-profit.
“The board of directors that’s listed is Jeff, his mother and his wife,” Brake said, “and not the board that we all thought they were.”
Brake provided those documents to Inman, and as of January 2020 they list Marlene Balzano and Elizabeth Orgil as board members. Berger would not confirm the nature of his relationship with Balzano and Orgil, nor would he say what specific responsibilities they have at NAGLREP. But he did tell Inman that “family members can be board members of a non-profit.”
“The bottom line is there’s nothing wrong with family members being board members,” he reiterated.
As of Monday, NAGLREP’s website lists Janis Lippman of Compass, NS Bruce Williams and Eric Axelson of eXp Realty as directors of the board. Inman reached out to all three board members but did not receive responses. Berger told Inman the trio isn’t on its government documents because they joined in the years since NAGLREP was formed.
However, Peterson was not satisfied with Berger’s characterization of the situation. He told Inman that non-profits have to file updated documentation each year, meaning directors could have been added. And he said the majority of the board for a 501 c3 non-profit that is also a public charity — which NAGLREP is — must be made up of non-close family members.
“The documents raise some very significant questions that need to be answered because they are, year after year, filing the same information that’s not accurate,” he said, adding that “in my view it’s a misrepresentation that Jeff has never addressed.”
Among other things, Brake also said that another NAGLREP government filing mentioned 803 voting NAGLREP members. But Brake added that “as a NAGLREP member we have never voted on anything and we have never seen bylaws or treasurer reports.”
The situation raised questions for Brake and Peterson, but they said when they and others tried to raise those concerns, Berger deleted their comments from Facebook, kicked them out of the NAGLREP Facebook group, and ultimately removed their profiles from the organization’s website.
“Whether there’s anything wrong fiscally, no one knows,” Brake said. “But I know that it raises a lot of red flags to me when upon questioning, you’re excommunicated.”
Berger did not deny taking down comments, but said that “the questions that were deleted were bullying comments to me.” He also described Peterson as an “agent provocateur” who was trying to form a rival organization to NAGLREP and who is “trying to defame me because he’s a fucking nobody.”
“He’s a scammer and he’s trying to gaslight me and he’s trying to loot, riot and burn what I have and I’m going to put his dick in the dirt,” Berger said.
Berger also said that he would not allow negativity on NAGLREP’s social media platforms.
“No one’s going to hustle me,” he said. “If they want to be little babies, they’re not going to use the platform that NAGLREP has for the LGBT community to hustle the group with their bullying ways.”
Peterson countered that he is not trying to form a rival organization, though he did at one time consider organizing a NAGLREP chapter for Canadian real estate agents. He and other real estate professionals who were recently kicked off the NAGLREP Facebook group have also since coalesced in their own group on the platform, though he said its purpose is purely to do the networking they previously did via the NAGLREP group.
Berger believes the bullying he says is at the core of the conflict has to do with the fact that he is bisexual and was married to a woman that he has not legally divorced, and with whom he continues to coparent.
Peterson and Brake, however, told Inman that they do not care about Berger’s sexual orientation.
Either way though, the controversy appears to have drawn increased scrutiny last week. On Wednesday, NAGLREP announced that it was “ceasing and desisting it’s 2020 corporate partership [sic]” with Engel & Völkers Americas — Peterson’s brokerage.
“On May 27 Engel & Völkers advisor Robert Peterson of Victoria Canada bullied NAGLREP founder Jeff Berger until 1am by text harassing him for his sexual orientation and other degrading and disparaging remarks,” the announcement states. “Thereafter Robert Peterson of Engel & Völkers has been spreading false accusations about Jeff Berger, in an orchestrated attempt to damage Jeff’s good name in the real estate industry.”
Berger said in his statement, and in his conversation with Inman, that NAGLREP’s “core values no longer align” with those of Engel & Völkers.
On Thursday, Engel & Völkers Americas President and CEO Anthony Hitt released his own statement, in which he said he was responding with “shock and disappointment.” Hitt went on to say that his company does “not condone the approach or tone” that Peterson took when communicating with Berger, and that the correspondence between the two men was “beyond aggressive and inappropriate by both individuals.”
However, Hitt also believes “it is the right of any member of an organization to adequately question the business practices of its leadership without fear of retaliation.”
“Mr. Berger has tried to turn a simple request for transparency in the management of NAGLREP into an attack on his sexual orientation,” Hitt continued. “There was no such attack.”
Hitt’s statement concludes by asking for changes to NAGLREP’s governance, and by asking if Berger “continues to be the best person to lead such an important and powerful organization into the future.”
Hitt told Inman on Monday that he has long respected NAGLREP. And he ultimately spoke out because he felt the need to defend his company’s name as a brand that’s “very proud of the diversity we have in our organization.”
“I felt we really had no alternative,” Hitt explained.
Hitt also offered some praise for Berger, saying, “I think Jeff has done a lot of good in our community and our industry over the last 13 years.” He went on to explain that he has walked in multiple Pride parades with Berger, among other things, and had “always known him to forthcoming and polite.” However, curt communications during the current controversy have left Hitt with the impression that “this is not the person who I feel like I’ve been dealing with in the past.”
Hitt added that his primary concern in the situation is with NAGLREP’s role going forward.
“What I’m worried about is that NAGLREP gets hurt in all of this,” he said. “It’s too important to be wounded in any way.”
Asked about Hitt’s statement, Berger told Inman that the executive “is trying to bully me, just like his agent tried to bully me.” He also described Hitt as a “phony” who “just wants to save face.”
“He couldn’t get what he wanted, baby couldn’t get his bottle,” he said, adding that “we’re just happy to have a bully like Anthony Hitt, and Robert Peterson, gone from the organization.”
It’s unclear what might happen next, but Berger said his organization is doing well.
“Everything is good,” he said. “The state of NAGLREP is fantastic.”
As for Berger’s critics, they told Inman they still want answers.
“Our concern is really all about the lack of transparency,” Brake said, “and the failure to respond or allow us to respond.”
Read Hitt’s statement here:
Update: This post was updated after publication with additional comments from Peterson clarifying the requirements regarding 501 c3 non-profits.
Correction: Eric Axelson works with eXp. This post previously stated he was with Keller Williams, where he previously worked.