Amid debt and turmoil, NAACP is sparing frills

October 15, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

A year ago, the NAACP's 64-member board held its annual October meeting in a Nassau resort-casino. Then-Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., flying high after six months on the job, parried a board thrust to weaken his powers -- a battle that Chavis aides later called "the drama in the Bahamas."

Today , after one of the most tumultuous years in the civil rights group's 85-year history, Dr. Chavis has been fired and the NAACP is more than $3.5 million in debt. Board members are cramming their October meeting into the group's Northwest Baltimore headquarters and staying at a Beltway hotel to save money.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People now faces the post-Chavis task of replenishing its coffers and rebuilding its credibility while dealing with new allegations of financial impropriety.

The NAACP's board chairman, Dr. William F. Gibson, an unpaid volunteer, has been accused of spending lavishly on NAACP travel and improperly accepting reimbursement for thousands of dollars in expenses already charged to an organization credit card.

Dr. Gibson, a Greenville, S.C., dentist who has been chairman since 1985, denies any wrongdoing. He says his NAACP trips were necessary and made at considerable personal financial sacrifice as his dental practice withered to half its former size.

Today's meeting is expected to be a test of the 62-year-old Dr. Gibson's strength. He says that he doesn't oppose an audit of his spending but that he won't step down before his term ends in February.

Board member Joseph E. Madison said yesterday that the meeting will probably "lead to an internal showdown between Gibson's staunchest supporters and the rest of the board."

"There will be a vote to have an audit," he predicted. "The real contention will be over whether or not [Dr. Gibson] will be asked to step down while an audit is performed."

John J. Mance, a Gibson supporter, said the chairman should hold his ground.

"If I were Dr. Gibson, if I didn't feel guilty, I'd be damned if I'd pretend I am," the California board member said.

A five-member audit committee was named to go over the NAACP's books after Dr. Chavis' ouster seven weeks ago. It is likely to play a key role as the Gibson controversy unfolds.

The committee is headed by Judge Fred L. Banks Jr., a Mississippi state Supreme Court justice who is widely respected on the board. The Banks panel also is to report to the board today on the NAACP's deficit.

The news isn't expected to be good. Sources say cartons of unpaid bills were found at NAACP headquarters after Dr. Chavis' departure. Interim management has been busy keeping creditors at bay while trying to boost membership and raise money.

A debate has been rekindled over who bears most responsibility for the deficit -- Dr. Chavis; his predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks; the financial staff; or the board.

Pundits have called for scrapping the legislature-sized board, whose meetings can cost $100,000 each, and starting anew. But the politics of doing so are daunting.

Marc Stepp, a board member who heads a fund-raising campaign to cut the deficit, said he has "great faith" that the Banks committee will help straighten out the financial mess.

Mr. Stepp said syndicated columnist Carl T. Rowan's reports about Dr. Gibson's spending haven't led NAACP members to desert the association.

"This negative publicity is not helping, but it hasn't stopped them," he said.

The board is expected to begin the process of searching for Dr. Chavis' successor. Dr. Chavis, 46, was fired after making a secret deal to pay a former aide up to $332,400 to settle a threatened sexual-harassment lawsuit.

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