NAACP leader denies sexual harassment allegations

August 01, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher and James Bock | Michael A. Fletcher and James Bock,Sun Staff Writers

ATLANTA -- NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. denied yesterday that he sexually harassed a former employee and said he agreed to pay the woman up to $332,400, without telling his board of directors, to "protect the NAACP."

In his first public response to Mary E. Stansel's allegations in a lawsuit that she was discriminated against, sexually harassed and fired unjustly, Dr. Chavis told a news conference:

"I made an administrative decision to protect the NAACP from exposure to false and slanderous allegations. I believe it would have been irresponsible of me . . . to have allowed this matter to linger."

At times holding hands with his wife, Martha Rivera Chavis, who is pregnant with twins, the 46-year-old NAACP leader said that Ms. Stansel's allegations are "completely false and have no merit. . . . I do not minimize the harm of sexual harassment, when it happens."

Ms. Stansel, a former legislative aide to Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama, worked briefly as an interim employee at the NAACP in early 1993 but was dismissed. She had been a volunteer in the campaign to make Dr. Chavis the civil rights group's executive director.

A lawyer in her late 40s who lives in Washington, Ms. Stansel has neither detailed her allegations against Dr. Chavis in court nor returned phone calls.

The 64-member NAACP board was not told of the deal that Dr. Chavis made with Ms. Stansel in November 1993. The out-of-court settlement committed the NAACP to pay her up to $332,400 unless Dr. Chavis helped find her a Washington-area job paying $80,000 a year.

Board Chairman William F. Gibson yesterday defended Dr. Chavis, saying that he had "complete, full executive authority" to make the deal with Ms. Stansel without consulting the board. Dr. Gibson said he knew in late 1993 of Ms. Stansel's threat to sue.

"The board had not in the past dealt with such types of complaints and, in this case, there was no reason to deviate from standard operating procedures," he said, flanked by a handful of board members, including vice chairman Ben Andrews Jr.

Dr. Chavis refused to discuss in detail why he settled with Ms. Stansel. He also did not talk about the nature of his relationship with her; the news conference was limited to procedural questions surrounding the breach-of-contract suit.

One NAACP board member has called for Dr. Chavis to resign. Yesterday, another board member, Joseph E. Madison, asked Dr. Chavis and Dr. Gibson to "temporarily step aside pending a complete investigation by the board," including an audit of the executive director's and chairman's offices.

Mr. Madison said such a move was needed to safeguard the NAACP's integrity and to assure contributors that their money was being spent responsibly. The 85-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People faces a nearly $3 million deficit.

A third board member, Marc Stepp, recently named by Dr. Chavis to head a board fund-raising committee to erase the deficit, yesterday called on Dr. Gibson to convene the board to discuss the Chavis-Stansel deal.

"We need to clear the air to make sure contributors know people are very concerned and so the association won't get hurt by this controversy," Mr. Stepp said. "We're surprised and embarrassed."

Dr. Gibson told the news conference that he would call a special board meeting in an effort to defuse the controversy over the settlement, but he said no date had been set.

NAACP fund-raisers were already worried that donors might have been offended by Dr. Chavis' invitation of Louis Farrakhan, who has often made anti-Jewish remarks, to a conference of black leaders in June at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore.

News of the deal with Ms. Stansel "certainly raises questions in the minds of supporters about how money is spent and how much control and oversight the board has," said Mr. Madison, a Washington radio talk show host.

He said the board's assembled expertise -- including that of six lawyers, three judges and three labor leaders -- could have aided Chavis in his negotiations with Ms. Stansel had the executive director asked for help.

"The question remains: Why weren't we told?" Mr. Madison asked. "Given the magnitude of this settlement, the board is due an explanation. If nothing else, you do it out of common courtesy."

The deal became public after Ms. Stansel filed suit in District of Columbia Superior Court accusing Dr. Chavis and the NAACP of reneging on the agreement. She charged that the NAACP stopped payments to her and tried to renegotiate the terms of the deal.

According to court papers, the agreement called for Ms. Stansel to receive $50,000 plus six monthly payments of $5,400 each -- a total of $82,400 -- while Dr. Chavis helped her find a suitable job. If she received no job offer, she was to be paid $250,000 in 12 monthly installments.

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