Second woman accuses Chavis of harassment

August 19, 1994|By Ann LoLordo and Michael A. Fletcher | Ann LoLordo and Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writers

NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. has been accused of sexual harassment and wrongful discharge by another former employee, a Cleveland-area woman who worked for his wife in Baltimore earlier this year.

The NAACP's general counsel, Dennis C. Hayes, has told board members who sit on a legal committee that the organization received a letter last spring from a Cleveland lawyer representing Susan E. Tisdale, said Carl L. Breeding, a national board member from Michigan.

A memo being circulated this week to board members by a law firm that has represented Dr. Chavis describes Mrs. Tisdale's allegations. Mrs. Tisdale, 32, "alleges that she was subjected to advances from Dr. Chavis and was asking for $100,000 in damages for emotional distress," according to the document.

The letter from Cleveland attorney Lawrence Floyd said his client is "considering a lawsuit against the organization for loss of employment," the memo to board members said.

But it was unclear what, if any, action had been taken on Mrs. Tisdale's allegations. Mrs. Tisdale's lawyer has refused to comment on his letter or his client's charges.

Mr. Hayes did not return phone calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Dr. Chavis refused to comment on the matter last night.

Mrs. Tisdale's allegations against Dr. Chavis -- who is fighting for his job -- were included in the document sent to board members in preparation for tomorrow's special meeting.

The board session was called to hear Dr. Chavis' explanation of a secret deal he negotiated last fall to pay up to $332,400 to Mary E. Stansel to forestall a threatened lawsuit on sexual discrimination and harassment allegations. Ms. Stansel, a former aide to Dr. Chavis, has since sued him and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, alleging that they have reneged on the settlement. Dr. Chavis has vigorously denied her allegations, and the NAACP has countersued.

Besides the Stansel matter, tomorrow's agenda includes "any other lawsuits pending or threatened, past performance of officers and staff of association with respect to any lawsuits or threats of lawsuits," said a board member who asked not to be identified.

The letter from Mrs. Tisdale's lawyer arrived at the NAACP on April 4, according to the pre-board meeting document prepared by the law firm Alexander, Gebhardt, Aponte & Marks, which represented Dr. Chavis in the Stansel case.

Mrs. Tisdale worked as an executive secretary to Martha R. Chavis, according to former and present employees at the NAACP who asked not to be identified. Mrs. Chavis oversees the Women in the NAACP program.

Mrs. Tisdale, who met the couple in Cleveland when Dr. Chavis headed the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, lived with the couple in their Ellicott City home for about two months, the sources said.

Mr. Breeding, the NAACP board member who sits on the legal committee, said he did not know the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Tisdale's allegations. "I talked with the general counsel . . . and he said we heard from her attorney [and] she wanted to be heard or file a complaint," said Mr. Breeding.

When asked recently about a report in the Wall Street Journal that the NAACP was negotiating with a second woman, Dr. Chavis talked about "a syndrome of copycat cases." He said no other lawsuits like Ms. Stansel's had been filed against him or the NAACP.

Mrs. Tisdale came to Baltimore in January and worked at NAACP headquarters until March when she was fired by Mrs. Chavis, according to a former NAACP employee who befriended the woman. After her discharge, Mrs. Tisdale wrote Dr. Chavis and asked him for another job, said the former employee, who refused to be identified.

"Given that you cannot provide me with a safe working environment because Mrs. Chavis has unlawfully forced me out of my position as executive secretary for WIN based on non-business-related reasons, I respectfully request to be reassigned to another position in the building," the letter said. "I have proven during my tenure at the NAACP that I am a professional, competent and trustworthy employee. Many people within the NAACP have expressed a strong interest in me working for them. Therefore, I stand willing and ready to take on a new position at the NAACP today."

Mrs. Tisdale eventually returned to the Cleveland area. Reached at home earlier this week, she would not comment on her allegations.

The charges of sexual harassment and discrimination leveled at Dr. Chavis have surprised former associates and friends who have known the 46-year-old minister since he began working for the United Church of Christ in 1971 as an organizer in North Carolina.

He rose to become executive director of the church's Commission for Racial Justice, a position he held from 1985 until he took the NAACP post in April 1993.

Beverly Chain, a church spokeswoman in Cleveland, said the church had received no complaints about Dr. Chavis. "And no gossip," she added.

The Rev. Edwin R. Edmonds, chairman of the justice commission who has known Dr. Chavis since the executive director was 19, said Dr. Chavis "fought for liberation from sexism as much as he did for racism."

Dr. Edmonds described his colleague as "a man of his convictions."

Andrea C. Gibbs, a justice commission official who worked with Dr. Chavis for nearly a decade, said her former boss "was respectful, always respectful of everyone -- the staff, other co-workers, people we did projects with."

"We've never had any sort of allegations here -- never heard of it."

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