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Controversial Spa Lady Proves a Fit Choice as Head of Federal Agency

February 17, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

ROSSLYN, Va. — After 24 years of catering to the whims of the overweight rich, Deborah Szekely wanted something more.

Sure, she founded the Golden Door, the opulent, Japanese-style spa in Escondido where women plunk down $3,000 a week to have their bodies massaged, thinned and fussed over.

Yes, Szekely was on so many boards, volunteered for so many civic projects and won so many citizen awards that you need two weeks of workouts at the Door before you can lift her bio sheet.

So why the yearning for something else?

"It all started when I was looking forward to my 60th birthday, and you realize you have every bit as much energy as you did at 30 or 40," said Szekely (pronounced ZAY-kay), now 63. "You don't feel like repeating yourself on and on. You have an opportunity for a whole new life."

And that is precisely what Szekely has, a life style she calls "a fantasy" as the controversial president of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), a small federal agency that administers grants directly to poor people throughout Latin America, without political government interference from either side.

Tiny but Treasured

Because the 15-year-old agency has not involved itself in foreign policy considerations but instead works directly with poor people's groups, it is considered a tiny but treasured oasis in the desert of foreign aid, where, all too often, grants intended to help poor people never reach them.

Szekely's appointment--after the ousting of the highly respected previous president, Peter Bell--brought howls from many observers--the spa lady, administering grants to Latin America? Is this a "Saturday Night Live" skit, or what?

"I had been in fitness forever, and I decided I wanted to do something totally different to challenge my mind, challenge my spirit," Szekely said.

Supporters of the IAF viewed Bell's ousting and replacement by Szekely as the key steps in a move by the Reagan Administration to politicize the agency. Surely, they argued, the spa lady would be just a tool for the right-wing faction on the board, which seeks to change the IAF.

"She's not the kind of person you need in a sensitive job like that," a Foreign Affairs Committee member, Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), had fumed in the summer of 1984 when word got out that Szekely was pursuing the job.

And, also at that time: "She may be the least qualified person in America for the job," said Steve Hellinger, co-director of the Development Group for Alternative Policies, a nonprofit aid and

development organization that works with some of the same groups funded by IAF.

Now, after 17 months at the helm of IAF, Szekely draws praise from Garcia and Hellinger. Instead of politicizing the agency, Szekely is fighting fiercely for its continued independence, a surprise move that turned a couple of conservative board members against her and resulted in an effort by them to have her fired.

The effort did not succeed. And although some observers continue to criticize Szekely's administrative abilities--saying she bombards the staff with paper work and off-the-wall ideas--she earns high marks for battling for the agency's political independence.

Despite her lack of Latin American expertise and her administrative shortcomings, Szekely "will go down in history as the person who saved IAF if she can hold off the board," a Latin American expert said.

Garcia, the congressman who had questioned her sensitivity, now says, "On the contrary, she and I have met on more than one occasion, and I have found her to be extremely sensitive and extremely cooperative. She's come in and she's tried, and that's all you can really ask."

Hellinger still believes Szekely is not eminently qualified but has been pleasantly surprised that she has not allowed herself to be used by conservative board members to alter the agency's philosophy.

'Feel It's Unfortunate'

"I still feel it's unfortunate that someone without a background or understanding of the field of development was chosen for the job," said Hellinger. "But the foundation continues to do well primarily because the work is not generated from the top of the organization but rather from the bottom, where the field staff receives proposals from poor people's organizations.

"On the other hand she has done an outstanding job of maintaining the independence and integrity of the institution in the face of attempts by the Administration to politicize the job."

The move to oust Szekely had been led by board chairman Victor Blanco, a conservative Cuban-American businessman from Los Angeles, who had complained that the IAF was funding too many left-leaning projects and employed too many liberals.

"I was amazed," Szekely said of the attempt.

But since Szekely survived Blanco's attempt to vote her out of her office, Blanco "has gone out of his way to be helpful," Szekely said. "And from a nice, handsome, tall, Cuban gentleman, that's something."

Even Szekely admits that she was not well versed in the field of development, or in Latin American affairs.

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