League chief gets week to reply 2 employees allege Lyons misused rights group's credit card

October 14, 1995|By JOE MATHEWS | JOE MATHEWS,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Urban League's board of directors yesterday gave the organization's president, Roger I. Lyons, seven days to respond in writing to two League employees' allegations that he used his company credit card for personal transactions.

Mr. Lyons last year survived an attempt to fire him after he charged his son's school fees and a family vacation -- about $4,000 -- to the Urban League. This time, fiscal assistant Roscoe Johnson III and veteran League administrator Patricia Horsey, in separate memos to the board, contend that Mr. Lyons still owes the organization $1,800 in charges dating to November 1993.

Board members agree that Mr. Lyons has been an asset during his seven years on the job, building the group's budget and moving its headquarters from the basement of a shopping mall to the historic Orchard Street Church. But some members, all of whom recently have been asked to find or contribute $2,000 to the organization, say they no longer trust him with the League's money.

"His success makes this a difficult problem for the Urban League," says Alan Edelman, a board member who is president of Edelman Investments. "These are serious accusations, but I should caution that we don't know to what extent they're true."

The dispute has emerged at a sensitive time for the Urban League, which is struggling to improve its sagging finances in anticipation of cuts in state and federal government grants. Board members, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said the group has had trouble paying bills and recently had fallen more than three months behind on its mortgage. Financial documents obtained by The Sun show the organization posted an operating deficit of $141,518 for the year ended June 30, 1994.

During the past year, the League board has moved more aggressively to improve its cash flow and develop a strategy for professionalizing the operation.

"But this isn't what this meeting is about," said one board member. "This is about integrity."

Mr. Lyons did not attend yesterday's meeting. Meldon Hollis, the board's chairman, said Mr. Lyons had spent time in the hospital for stress-related symptoms and is home resting. Mr. Lyons did not return phone calls, nor did anyone answer the door at his home late yesterday afternoon.

Mr. Hollis yesterday defended Mr. Lyons, a "good friend" who often is at the chairman's side at college football games. Mr. Hollis termed Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Horsey's memos the work of "disgruntled employees" who "can't stand to lose." And Mr. Hollis suggested they were part of an effort to discredit the League as it seeks corporate funding and assistance.

"Since we have moved to Orchard Street, we have taken on a large mortgage and considerable upkeep on the building," Mr. Hollis said. "I am trying to restructure the League to make us more independent and less dependent on government funds."

Much of the discussion at yesterday's meeting focused on $648 in food and hotel expenses Mr. Lyons charged to the League in March while he attended a conference as a trustee of Baltimore City Community College. Mr. Lyons has since become chairman of the college's board of trustees.

In his letter, dated Oct. 6, Mr. Johnson alleged that BCCC had reimbursed Mr. Lyons, but the president had not reimbursed the League. Urban League treasurer Wilkens McNair Jr. said last night that Mr. Lyons' wife brought him $700 Thursday to pay the debt.

After his allegation, Mr. Johnson was put on administrative leave, sources said, until the board reversed that action yesterday. Neither he nor any League official would say whether the leave was paid, and efforts to reach Mr. Johnson were unsuccessful.

In a phone interview, Mr. Hollis suggested that he might have put Mrs. Horsey on leave as well. But he said she had not returned his phone calls since she sent the memo.

Mr. Hollis, who recently completed his first year as chairman, has spoken often of his desire to professionalize the League's fund raising and find staff members "with corporate experience." He said some League staffers may be undermining Mr. Lyons because of "unfounded" anxiety about what these changes may mean.

Board members described yesterday's meeting, which did not appear on the board's regular schedule, as tense.

During that session, Mr. Hollis, wary of possible publicity, refused to let board members take documents home with them. Then an angry Ernestine F. Jones, a board member who works for Lockheed IMS, denounced the employees who wrote the letters. If the pair had worked for her, Ms. Jones purportedly said, she would fire them.

Other members expressed concern about Mr. Lyons' credit card troubles, hinting that it could cost him his job.

Contacted later, Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he was worried the dispute would affect the organization.

"I'm concerned that this problem continues to haunt the Urban League," said Mr. Abramson, who did not attend the meeting. "I hope it will be brought to a quick conclusion."

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