Jury clears NAACP in Chavis deal Civil rights group has no liability in Stansel suit, jury says

Sex claims held little sway

Ex-director, aide ordered to repay funds from secret deal

June 07, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A jury absolved the NAACP yesterday of any responsibility for a $332,400 settlement made by former Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. with a one-time aide who accused him of forcing her to have sex.

The jury's verdict was a clean sweep for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the only clear winner to emerge from the two-week trial. The jury also ordered former aide Mary E. Stansel to pay back $63,800 to the civil rights group, and it told Chavis to pay the NAACP $5,400.

"This is one chapter closed," said Dennis Court-land Hayes, NAACP general counsel. "The NAACP can certainly use the $250,000 [Stansel] wanted, for civil rights purposes."

Calling the verdict "the end of a very unfortunate episode," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said in a statement that the Baltimore-based organization looked forward to "refocusing our energies on the fight for civil rights."

The Chavis-Stansel deal, made in November 1993 but kept secret for months, sparked a crisis from which the nation's largest civil rights group is still recovering. It led to Chavis' firing and the ouster of Chairman William F. Gibson. It shook public confidence in the NAACP. Donations slipped and debts mounted.

Yesterday's verdict indicated that the jury of seven women and two men agreed with the NAACP's view that the organization was "an innocent victim caught in the cross-fire" between Chavis, viewed as too willing to spend the NAACP's money, and Stansel, regarded as too willing to take it.

Jurors interviewed said they were concerned with what they considered the fundamental injustice of paying Stansel, who worked just six weeks at the NAACP, $332,400 of the nonprofit group's funds.

"It was unfair; it was too much money being asked," said a 19-year-old female student, who would not give her name.

Stansel, who said she had a consensual sexual affair with Chavis in 1990-1991 before he "dumped" her, testified that Chavis "intimidated" her into having sex with him in April 1993. Chavis, portraying his former aide as a scheming ex-employee trying to get even, flatly denied ever having had sex with Stansel.

Chavis said he entered into the settlement with Stansel to protect the NAACP from bad publicity and possible losses. The deal called for Chavis and the NAACP to pay Stansel up to $332,400 unless he got her the offer of a high-paying job.

Stansel was paid $87,200 before Chavis, facing a ballooning NAACP debt, cut off payments in the spring of 1994. Then she sued for the $245,200 balance.

In a separate ruling last fall, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. found Chavis personally liable for the unpaid $245,200. Chavis has appealed that ruling.

Yesterday Chavis lost the chance that the NAACP would share his liability. But the 48-year-old civil rights activist said he felt "validated" by the jury's verdict.

"What the jury did today showed they disagreed with Stansel's allegations against the NAACP," Chavis said. "This is a case of a former employee holding the NAACP and me up for money. I think for once we've put the sexual-harassment claim to rest."

Jurors said their verdict had little to do with Stansel and Chavis' conflicting testimony about sex.

"There was no debate on the sex. As far as we were concerned, it was irrelevant," said a 55-year-old male paramedic, who would not give his name.

The jury deliberated for 4 1/2 hours over two days.

Stansel was the big loser in the civil trial in District of Columbia Superior Court. The 51-year-old former U.S. Senate aide declined to comment. Her lawyer, Sharon A. Cummings, said they were "disappointed" and would appeal.

The verdict does not resolve all of the NAACP's disputes with Chavis. Hayes said the former NAACP leader still owes the organization about $111,000, including $33,000 in personal expenses charged to a corporate credit card and more than $70,000 in loans to help him to buy his $478,000 house in Ellicott City.

Chavis contends that the Stansel deal merely gave the NAACP board an excuse to dismiss him. He says his efforts to form alliances with Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, and other black nationalists made him a target for NAACP conservatives.

Since his firing in August 1994, Chavis has moved closer to Farrakhan. He was national director of the Farrakhan-led Million Man March in October in Washington. Nation of Islam members escorted Chavis and his wife, Martha, from the courtroom yesterday.

Stansel testified that she complained to no one other than Chavis about the alleged sexual encounter in a Washington hotel -- not even to an unnamed NAACP board member with whom she was having a long-running sexual relationship.

She said she later anonymously sent written material about her sexual-harassment claim to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and two other civil rights leaders as "a subtle way of putting pressure on Chavis and the NAACP to settle my claims out of court."

Chavis acknowledged that not even the board chairman, Gibson, to whom he spoke "almost daily," knew the terms of the settlement until July 1994.

Hayes, the NAACP's main witness, testified that he knew nothing of the deal until reporters called him. He and Judge Fred Banks, an NAACP board member and Mississippi Supreme Court justice, said Chavis denied making any such settlement when asked by board members at the NAACP's July 1994 convention.

Jurors said the purported cover-up of the settlement was not a major issue for them.

"Dr. Gibson knew something was going on," said the paramedic. "There were plenty of red flags going up. Inside the organization, there was plenty of opportunity for people to know."

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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