Questions for Chavis

August 06, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis needs to come clean about why he committed nearly a third of a million dollars of his organization's money to settle an action brought by a former employee who claims she was a victim of sexual harassment and gender bias on the job.

Mr. Chavis insists he has done nothing wrong. But that is not enough. An official who holds a position of public trust not only must do nothing improper, he must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Leaving aside, for the moment, the merits of the allegations against him, Mr. Chavis, by his own actions, has seriously undermined the credibility of the organization he heads.

The suit filed by Mary E. Stansel, a lawyer who worked briefly as Mr. Chavis' aide last year, alleges that he broke their agreement to pay up to $322,400 in order to settle her claim of sexual harassment and sex discrimination.

Mr. Chavis says the charges are phony. At a press conference Thursday, he produced a letter written by the lawyer who arranged the original settlement with Ms. Stansel, which he cited as evidence that sexual harassment was never an issue in their negotiations.

Unfortunately, the press conference raised as many questions as it tried to answer. Mr. Chavis was asked whether he had known Ms. Stansel before last year, and if so for how long. But his lawyer refused to let him answer that question.

Why?

Mr. Chavis' attorney implied Ms. Stansel was a difficult personality who had a decade-long history of filing frivolous lawsuits against organizations and individuals.

But when asked why her client agreed to such a large settlement if he believed Ms. Stansel had acted in bad faith, the attorney replied that no one bothered to check Ms. Stansel's background.

Why?

Finally, it would seem that any leader faced with what he $H believed to be a frivolous claim demanding a huge sum from his organization's coffers would seek advice immediately from both his general counsel and his board. Their function is precisely to advise in such situations.

Yet Mr. Chavis apparently contrived to conceal the agreement not only from the NAACP's in-house legal staff, but from his own 64-member national board of directors, with the sole exception of chairman William Gibson.

Why?

These questions go to the heart of Mr. Chavis' credibility problem. At Thursday's press conference he tried to limit questioning to the letter from the attorney who arranged his settlement agreement with Ms. Stansel. At this point, however, the issue is not whether Ms. Stansel's allegations are true but rather whether Mr. Chavis showed good judgment in how he chose to respond to them.

I believe his actions show poor judgment, even taking into account his understandable fear of exposing himself and the NAACP to embarrassing publicity and ridicule.

Mr. Chavis may indeed have done nothing wrong, and it may turn out Ms. Stansel's charges are baseless. But the way he has handled this nevertheless looks very bad.

It suggests that he is trying to cover something up or slip a fast one by. Everything about the episode smacks of an underhanded, sneaky way of doing things that is fatal to an organization whose effectiveness depends on maintaining a reputation for absolute probity.

Even if Mr. Chavis has done nothing improper, his actions have an appearance of impropriety. And it is that appearance of impropriety that has undermined the group's public credibility and threatened its financial stability.

That is why the NAACP board, which will meet here Aug. 20 to discuss the issue, should insist that Mr. Chavis step aside until a full, independent investigation into this matter is completed.

As long as he remains in his position, no internal inquiry carried out by the group's general counsel can have any credibility. Even a report conducted by outside auditors would be vulnerable to charges that Mr. Chavis used his influence improperly to taint the results.

If Mr. Chavis wishes to be exonerated fully of the imputations against his character and leadership, he must step aside temporarily and allow an impartial investigation to proceed. If he refuses to step aside voluntarily, the board should insist that he do so until its investigation is completed. That is the only way, short of resignation, that this matter can be satisfactorily resolved.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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