Gibson Island Discrimination Suit Makes It To Court

November 21, 1990|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

Why is Richard Carson causing trouble in paradise? Why is this white anesthesiologist a plaintiff in a suit alleging a "subtle but extremely effective" system of racial discrimination exists on exclusive Gibson Island?

"I wanted to bring Gibson Island into the 20th century before the 21st," said Carson, a resident of the private enclave for three years. "There are some wonderful people here. There are some people here who want to keep things the way they were before the Civil War."

Carson spoke yesterday after a hearing in county Circuit Court, during which the island's community association brought in a former U.S. attorney general to ask a judge to dismiss Carson's complaint. Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr. said he would not rule on the motion until next week.

Carson, along with his wife and a former pro basketball player turned real estate broker, is seeking to change the way the Gibson Island Corp.

has conducted business since it bought the island 50 years ago for $150,000.

Under the current system, property owners on the island are shareholders in the corporation, which owns a golf course, clubhouse, yacht basin and other recreational facilities. The corporation rents these facilities to the tax-exempt, non-profit Gibson Island Club, for use by club members only.

Of the 198 property owners on the island, at least 195 are club members, said Benjamin R. Civiletti, a former U.S. attorney general representing the directors of the Gibson Island Corp. Carson, his wife, Kelley Carson, and former pro basketball player Frederick B. Hetzel, a Virginia resident with a second home at Gibson Island, were rejected for membership in the club.

Thus, they have complained, they don't get to use the facilities they own as shareholders in the corporation. The club has more than 600 members who are not property owners.

It is through this arrangement, Carson contends, that minorities are discouraged from buying property on Gibson Island. He said minorities get the hint they won't be allowed to use the club facilities, so they drop their bids to buy homes on the island.

Carson said he does not know why he was rejected for membership in the club.

Mark Apelman, attorney for those challenging the corporation, said, "It's a subtle, clever system, and it works to this day."

During yesterday's hearing, Apelman said a Burmese man who is a property owner never applied to the club because he was told he would not be accepted. But the man may be offered a membership to placate him and to quell dissension among shareholders, Apelman said.

"Now maybe he will become a token Burmese," he said.

The suit says no blacks or Jews have ever belonged to the club or owned property on the island.

In a letter contained in court files, Civiletti said the corporation directors were not aware of any discrimination at the club and said Carson's allegations were based not on merit but on the belief that he could intimidate the corporation and its board by threatening adverse publicity or a government investigation.

Carson and his co-plaintiffs have chosen to attack what they see as discrimination through a "derivative suit," in which a shareholder sues on behalf of the corporation charging corporation officers with breaking the law.

In this case, Carson says that although legally a for-profit corporation, the organization operates on a break-even basis, a violation of law. As an example, the suit says the corporation rents assets worth $12 million to $30 million to the Gibson Island Club for only $40,000 a year -- a fraction of the going rate.

Carson says the corporation's officers may be opening the organization up to a tax evasion charge through this arrangement. In the suit, he contends the corporation should be paying dividends.

The suit asks for $8.2 million in damages and an injunction ordering an end to discrimination on the island.

In asking for the judge to dismiss the complaint yesterday, Rignal Baldwin, attorney for the corporation, complained that the organization is being "abused and misused by several individuals for personal gain."

Civiletti argued yesterday that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to pursue the derivative suit and suggested that their strategy was a mere ruse.

"It's pretty plain, on the face of the complaint, why they're doing it," he said. "They're angry because they weren't in the club."

Civiletti also suggested that the landowners "stretched" their case to file the derivative suit -- technically on behalf of the corporation -- to get the corporation to pay the legal bills.

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