NAACP board divides over secret Chavis deal

July 31, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

The dispute over NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.'s agreement to pay up to $332,400 to a fired employee heated up yesterday as pro- and anti-Chavis factions on the group's board -- which wasn't told of the deal -- lined up support.

The 64-member board was taken by surprise by reports that Dr. Chavis had committed the NAACP last November to pay Mary E. Stansel, who had threatened an employment discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit after she was fired, tens of thousands of dollars. She was paid $77,000 through May when, she alleges, the NAACP reneged on the deal.

Dr. William F. Gibson, NAACP board chairman, has scheduled a news conference in Atlanta today with Dr. Chavis, who has been in Jamaica and unavailable for comment. Dr. Gibson summoned several of his closest supporters on the board to join them.

Meanwhile, Chavis critics considered demanding a special board meeting to discuss the Chavis-Stansel deal. According to the NAACP constitution, if 15 board members request a special meeting in writing, it must be held within 10 days. The critics began polling other members by telephone yesterday to see if they could garner the needed signatures.

"The chairman could save us a lot of trouble and simply do the right thing and call a board meeting to inform us about this agreement," said Joseph E. Madison, a board member. "The question is who knew what, when did they know it and why didn't they tell us."

Mr. Madison, a Washington radio talk show host and Chavis critic, said the Chavis deal "speaks poorly not only of his judgment, but also of his ability to manage."

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out if you have a board of directors and you make them party to an agreement worth more than $300,000, those individuals have a right to know the details of the agreement," he said.

Marc Stepp, chairman of the board's personnel committee, said he was never told about the deal. Mr. Madison, a budget committee member, said neither was that panel informed of the deal, which was handled by a private attorney, not the NAACP general counsel.

Since the settlement was signed in November, the full board has held three meetings, all with Dr. Chavis present. The most recent meeting, on July 13, came nearly two weeks after Ms. Stansel filed suit in District of Columbia Superior Court accusing the NAACP and Dr. Chavis of breach of contract. That suit brought the deal to light.

Ms. Stansel says in her lawsuit that sexual harassment was part of her case against Dr. Chavis and the NAACP, although that was not mentioned in the November settlement. Ms. Stansel has not returned telephone calls.

One board member, Leroy W. Warren Jr. of Silver Spring, has called on Dr. Chavis to resign to save the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People "embarrassment."

But it was unclear yesterday how serious a threat the deal posed to Dr. Chavis. The 46-year-old executive director has weathered several storms, including criticism for reaching out to black separatist Louis Farrakhan, since he took over the NAACP in April 1993.

In February, after Dr. Chavis held a Washington seminar featuring "gangsta" rap artists, the NAACP board rebuked him by passing a resolution denouncing the music's often misogynistic and violent lyrics.

In April, the executive director angered board members by inviting black nationalists to a secret meeting in Detroit that the board knew nothing about.

At a May board meeting, members were shocked to learn that the NAACP had accumulated a $2.7 million deficit, which has since grown to nearly $3 million. The deal with Ms. Stansel never came up during discussion of the NAACP's troubled finances, board members say.

However, Dr. Chavis emerged from the NAACP convention earlier this month with new momentum. Delegates defeated an insurgent attempt by one of his critics to join the national board, and they approved a Chavis initiative to put staff in South Africa, despite the group's deficit.

While a small group of board members have been increasingly critical of Dr. Chavis' leadership, Dr. Gibson, the chairman, has seemed to cast his lot with Dr. Chavis.

The Chavis-Stansel deal called for the NAACP to pay Ms. Stansel to $82,400 over six months while Dr. Chavis helped her find an $80,000-a-year job in the Washington area. If she received no job offer, the NAACP was to pay her $250,000 over the next year.

Ms. Stansel, a former legislative aide to Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama, was a volunteer on the campaign to make Dr. Chavis NAACP executive director.

She managed the NAACP's executive office for several weeks after he got the job.

The NAACP says Ms. Stansel made "astronomical salary demands" and had "continual clashes" with other staff. After the November deal, she did not make a good-faith effort to find another job, the civil rights group said Thursday.

Abbey G. Hairston, a lawyer for the NAACP and Dr. Chavis, said Dr. Chavis agreed to settle with Ms. Stansel to avoid disrupting his new position.

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