The same day in May 1999 that Kweisi Mfume abruptly announced that he would not be a candidate for mayor, an internal investigative memo was sent to top officers of the NAACP describing allegations of Mfume's mistreatment of female subordinates at the organization's Baltimore headquarters.
For the next five years, the civil rights organization - still recovering from the 1994 sex scandal under former Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis - kept that memo secret and did nothing more, even as Mfume refused to answer any questions from the board's lawyers about the allegations.
But in an internal report last year, more serious accusations were made against the former Baltimore congressman, alleging that sexual harassment and favoritism festered for years within the national office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Within months of the completion of this 2004 investigation into his leadership, Mfume resigned as president - but, sources say, not before every board member had signed a confidentiality pledge.
The two written reports, as well as interviews with people both inside and outside the NAACP, provide a detailed look at an organization struggling to remain the pre-eminent voice on civil rights while trying to avoid another public embarrassment within its top leadership.
Mfume, 56, and many of his supporters categorically deny any impropriety at the NAACP and say that the recent disclosure of confidential internal documents is part of a broad conspiracy against his recently announced campaign to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
"There are inaccuracies, in my opinion," Mfume said in a phone call to The Sun. "It's clear these are unsubstantiated, unproven allegations from one employee to the board."
Hazel Dukes, an NAACP board member, dismissed the allegations against Mfume.
"This is not the first rumor about any executive director, and this is not unique to the NAACP," she said. "But I don't pay attention to rumors. I'd rather talk about smaller class sizes in education and other issues of civil rights. If it was true, I'd be the first one on the soapbox."
Other defenders of Mfume say they don't believe the accusations and think he can weather the controversy.
"I do know that Mr. Mfume has overcome a lot during his short stay on earth," said Raymond V. Haysbert, the former head of Parks Sausage and a close friend of Mfume's. "Because of his history of overcoming the odds, I'm sure he will overcome. That's what he's about."
Concerns about Mfume's management style surfaced in the memo written in 1999, the same year the former congressman was being encouraged by business and political leaders to run for mayor of Baltimore. Mfume's decision not to enter the race cleared the way for Martin O'Malley to declare his candidacy a month later.
Through a spokesman, Mfume denies that there was any connection between the conclusions of the fact-finding inquiry dated May 24, 1999, and his announcement that day that he would not run for mayor.
Mfume "didn't even see that memo," said Eric Bryant, a former NAACP staff member and a volunteer political director for Mfume's Senate campaign. "If he didn't read it then, how could there be a connection? There is no nexus between the two."
But Mfume was certainly aware of the inquiry. In the weeks before two Washington lawyers delivered the 1999 memo to NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, Mfume's "lawyers refused to let him answer any questions" in the investigation, according to the 10-page memorandum obtained by The Sun. Mfume's attorneys expressed "concern about issues of confidentiality [and] unnecessary publicity for President Mfume and the organization."
The report also questioned whether Mfume and his lawyers had possibly "exerted improper influence on two key witnesses."
Bond said last week that he could not discuss the specifics of the allegations or reports.
Glimpse at culture
The 1999 memo offers a glimpse into the culture at the Baltimore headquarters, described as "quite tolerant of employee conduct." Issues reviewed in the memo include a shouting match between two women in the office, and whether Mfume's alleged romantic relationship with one of the women affected subsequent disciplinary actions.
Five years later, NAACP officials launched another detailed inquiry into allegations against Mfume after a female employee threatened a discrimination complaint.
That report, dated July 13, 2004, characterizes the NAACP as having an atmosphere filled with fights and gossip about employees' sexual behavior. It portrays an office beset with the kind of allegations of sexual favoritism that forced out Mfume's predecessor, Chavis, and crippled the organization's reputation.