Teresa Heinz Kerry, chair of the Heinz Endowments, said she and other family members on the endowments' board wanted to collaborate with the energy industry on ways to responsibly drill for gas in the Marcellus Shale, but they did not expect the Center for Sustainable Shale Development to be launched out of that effort.
"I was never involved with the center. ... I don't know how it came about," Mrs. Kerry said Friday during an interview at the endowments' Downtown offices.
Creation and funding of the center earlier this year was widely considered to be a catalyst for the abrupt departures in August of two key staff members at the endowments, including Caren Glotfelty, its top environmental program officer.
Mrs. Kerry, who was in Pittsburgh for meetings including an endowments board meeting, refused to link Ms. Glotfelty's firing to creation of the center. Nor would she comment on the departure of Douglas Root, longtime communications director at the prominent charitable organization.
The foundation's executive director, Robert Vagt, announced Oct. 14 he also will step down, although he has not said when he will leave.
Many observers believe Ms. Glotfelty, Mr. Root and Mr. Vagt all may have been caught up in the fallout from launching the center, which apparently did not have the full support of the Heinz family members who sit on the endowments board. Besides Mrs. Kerry, who is the widow of U.S. Sen. H. John Heinz III, her sons, H. John IV, Andre and Christopher, are also on the board as is Christopher's wife, Sasha.
Mrs. Kerry, known to be strong supporter of environmental causes, called the theory that Ms. Glotfelty and Mr. Root were dismissed because of their support for the center "conjecture."
"I don't care about [speculation]," she said. "I know what we stand for."
The Heinz Endowments, with assets of $1.4 billion, is ranked the 49th largest foundation in the United States. It dolled out $75 million in grants in 2012, including $16.8 million to environmental programs. Founded by members of the Heinz food empire, it is no longer formally connected to the H.J. Heinz Co.
The Center for Sustainable Shale Development is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that states its mission as supporting best practices for shale development. Its partners include energy companies such as Chevron, EQT, Consol and Shell; environmental groups including the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Penn Future; and philanthropies.
Mrs. Kerry traced its origins to conversations she had with Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil, about finding a "transparent way" to develop the resources of the Marcellus Shale.
"We feared the cowboys would take over or there would be no responsible mechanism, no transparency, to do it right. ... We decided to collaborate with the environmental and public health people. That's what I absolutely sanctioned and brought to the endowments," she said.
Asked how that initial idea to collaborate evolved into the center without her or the board's knowledge, Mrs. Kerry said, "I don't know. Things changed. I don't know how or when."
While she acknowledged approving initial funding for "a collaboration," the board did not authorize the center, she said.
She said that while she was hospitalized last summer after suffering a seizure, "Maybe I wasn't functioning well."
Some foundation observers have speculated that while she was ill, Andre Heinz, known to be an avid environmentalist, assumed more control of foundation affairs and was involved in firing the staff members.
Mrs. Kerry said Andre Heinz did fill in for her during at least one foundation meeting, though it was not a board meeting. She said he has been "attacked because he is an idealist."
"He is one of the brightest people there are and is passionate like his father and doesn't put up with nonsense. ... It's probably an easy way for people ... to criticize what they don't like. And I don't care, quite frankly."
Asked whether Andre Heinz might succeed her as the endowments' chair, Mrs. Kerry, 75, said, "He's not being groomed."
"They're all there ... and they're very good people," she said referring to all three of her sons. "Andre is very capable and verbal" while John and Christopher each have their own strengths and capabilities, she said. "How they'll manage [the transition], we'll work on that."
And she doesn't expect the transition to be soon.
"I told them I'd be here and I'll be chair if I'm 150 ... that's my intention."
She also doesn't anticipate the endowments' focus on southwestern Pennsylvania will change as its leadership is handed over to the next generation.
"The family feels ownership" of the Pittsburgh region, she said.
As for selecting a successor to Mr. Vagt, who is 66, Mrs. Kerry said, "[Executive directors] can't take this job for a long time if it's at this pace. It's demanding."
Commenting on the closure at the end of this year of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded two decades ago to sponsor research and policy discussions, Mrs. Kerry said it was not sustainable because of federal government funding cuts.
"It was sad to see it go," she said, but she hopes to possibly transfer some of its programs to the endowments.
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.