Civic leader felled by finances

Urban League officials ask Lyons to resign by next week

May 26, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson and Gary Cohn | M. Dion Thompson and Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF WRITERS

The man at the center of the Baltimore Urban League's financial crisis is a study in contrasts: a dynamic leader who cared about his community, but who could not keep the organization from financial disaster.

Roger I. Lyons' acumen and experience in the world of nonprofit social organizing brought millions of dollars to the Urban League. Yet he was nearly fired in 1994 when questions arose about use of his League credit card for personal expenses.

Now the organization is desperately seeking a $600,000 to $700,000 bailout and Lyons, the group's president, has been asked to resign by Wednesday. The board decided his fate at a private meeting Wednesday, after unpaid League bills had piled up for months and prospective contributors demanded change.

Still, the 52-year-old Lyons is well-liked and admired by many who, while complimenting his efforts, can only shake their heads and wonder how things at the Urban League could get so bad.

"I think insofar as being able to deliver programs and understand the critical importance of making sure all segments of our population benefit from economic growth, I don't think anyone can surpass Roger in that regard," said Ioanna Morfessis, who recently resigned from the board .

"It was very clear to me that we [the board of the Urban League] didn't pay close enough attention to the financial status and controls. I'm not sure that was really a forte of Roger's either."

Lyons, who did not return calls yesterday, came to Baltimore 12 years ago after spending 18 years in Urban Leagues throughout the Midwest. He became known as a consensus builder and peacemaker. He also took on difficult projects.

Within four years of taking over the Baltimore Urban League, he brought together a diverse group of public and private interests to complete a $3.7 million renovation of the historic Orchard Street Church in 1992. Few thought the project would succeed. Others had tried and failed. The church had been vacant for 17 years. His drive and conviction helped turn a neighborhood eyesore into a jewel and headquarters for the Urban League.

Today, mortgage payments and upkeep on the building are part of the chain of debts threatening the organization.

Two years after the successful renovation, in 1994 , Lyons' board of directors tried to fire him after a dispute over personal charges he made on a corporate credit card. When asked to resign, he refused. He acknowledged making some mistakes and survived.

The following year, another dispute over credit card expenses ended with the board giving Lyons a vote of confidence as he weathered doubts about his integrity.

That same year, he set the Urban League on a new course that brought about an unusual relationship with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, building on the common interests of conservationists and the black urban community. They commissioned a study to look at toxins in seafood caught by fishermen around the Inner Harbor. Another program used environmental web sites to help teach Urban League clients how to use computers.

"My dealings with Mr. Lyons include him being an inspirational speaker and being able to add an urban perspective," said Jay Sherman, the foundation's director of outreach and training. "It saddens me to see the Baltimore Urban League having a difficult period because I think the broader mission is vital to the people of Baltimore."

The Urban League, one of 115 affiliates, has been a part of Baltimore for 76 years. Its programs have included AIDS education, literacy classes and mentoring for young fathers. There have been job training programs in the Park Heights neighborhood. Last year, the Urban League sponsored "Achievement Matters," which was aimed at promoting academic achievement among young African Americans.

Lyons' role in bringing these programs to Baltimore is unquestioned. Some estimate his fund-raising efforts helped bring in $18 million.

In 1996 and 1997 the Urban League received two grants totaling $600,000 from the U. S. Department of Energy. Former state Sen. Larry Young was hired as a consultant on the project.

A year later, federal prosecutors were looking into the arrangement. They eventually filed a civil lawsuit contending that the Urban League and Young "knowingly" submitted fraudulent bills and used falsified records to "conceal" payments from the federal government. Though there was never a finding of wrongdoing, the Urban League agreed to a consent decree and a $40,000 fine.

Young, now a radio commentator, called Lyons "an exceptional person" who kept in touch with the concerns of Urban League clients and who had a great ability to defuse tense situations.

"I would hope that there would be a serious review of his accomplishments, and once that review is done that it would be compared to work done by others who should have been partners with him," said Young.

"When I think of Roger Lyons, I think of the community and of someone who is truly trying to create opportunities for those individuals who have been disconnected from the mainstream," said Karen Sitnick, director of the city's Office of Employment Development.

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