Cleaning up the King dinner finances Annapolis event: Carl Snowden improving financial disclosure in wake of controversy.

December 17, 1997

AFTER A DECADE of dinners in Annapolis held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., organizers are taking much-needed steps to tighten financial controls and increase disclosure to the public. Had these measures been in place earlier, all the controversy over the collection and distribution of the contributions could have been allayed in the first place.

When The Sun last spring raised questions about the annual "Keeping the Dream Alive/Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Awards Dinner," the organizers' first reaction was to stonewall.

These January dinners, which attract as many as 400 people to commemorate the birthday of the slain civil rights leader, had always operated without disclosing much beyond the number in attendance. The organizers apparently believed that by simply invoking King's name, they could avoid accountability.

The undefined status of the group had caused problems for some donors. A few businesses had deducted the cost of the tickets as charitable gifts. Some individuals thought all the money collected was being distributed to community groups. Those who wanted to find out more about the committee couldn't.

The dinner was not registered with the state as a charity, nor with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit organization. Carl O. Snowden, the former Annapolis alderman and primary organizer of the event, described the sponsor as an "ad hoc citizens group," but it didn't answer to anyone.

The group's clamming up only raised suspicions. When Mr. Snowden finally hired an accounting firm and released financial statements, most suspicions were laid to rest. The group, indeed, had donated generous amounts to local and national civil rights organizations and maintained a healthy reserve.

The lesson to be learned from this experience is that even good causes organized by honorable people have to be accountable. There have been leaders who abused organizations devoted to good causes. For years, William Aramony used funds of United Way of America, over which he presided, to finance a luxurious lifestyle before being convicted for his crime. The only way to ensure against such temptations is complete financial disclosure.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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