Bush, NAACP remain apart as convention opens

President declines invitation to speak for fifth consecutive year

July 09, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

As NAACP delegates gather this weekend in Milwaukee for the group's 96th convention, it will mark a year since Chairman Julian Bond's searing critique of the Bush administration, triggering an IRS audit that nearly cost the organization its tax-exempt status.

Today, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and President Bush remain at odds. The civil rights group continues to fight the Internal Revenue Service investigation. And for the fifth year in a row, Bush has declined an invitation to speak at the convention.

But despite recent budget problems and the resignation in November of NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Kweisi Mfume amid allegations that he denies regarding workplace treatment of women, NAACP leaders say they have high hopes.

New leader

Retired Verizon executive Bruce S. Gordon is expected to take over the helm of the NAACP after a board vote at the convention, pledging to repair relations with the Bush administration among his goals.

While some activists have questioned his background in civil rights, others have lauded Gordon's managerial and corporate background as the tools the NAACP needs to develop an improved working relationship with the White House and bring a measure of nonpartisan credibility to the organization.

"There's real optimism on my part that he will reach out to the president," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. "But it shouldn't matter. I think if the NAACP is asking to meet, the meeting should take place. If people who have gone to war with each other, can sit down at the table of brotherhood, it's incumbent on the president of the United States to do the same with us."

Gordon will inherit an NAACP that has proceeded aggressively to defend itself against the IRS probe launched last fall in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign.

The NAACP leadership has charged that the audit is a politically motivated attempt to silence the nation's oldest civil rights group and a month ago filed a request with the IRS demanding to know which politicians prompted the audit.

Last year, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry addressed the NAACP convention to the cheers of its membership. Meanwhile, Bush declined the group's invitation and was chastised by its leadership for being the first sitting president since the Depression era not to address the organization.

The IRS first notified the NAACP's national office in Baltimore of the investigation in a letter dated Oct. 8, 2004. The IRS said the probe was limited to whether the NAACP crossed the line into political campaigning - prompted largely by Bond's national convention speech criticizing Bush.

Response to summons

In response to a summons sent to the NAACP this year, Bond said the organization would not comply with the investigation and refused to hand over requested documents.

Last month, the NAACP filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the IRS, demanding that it reveal who prompted the audit. Attorneys for the organization have charged that two members of Congress pushed for the audit in an attempt to thwart NAACP get-out-the-vote efforts leading to last year's presidential election.

A spokesman at the IRS would not comment on the investigation, saying that the agency is prohibited by law from commenting on the tax returns of an individual or group.

The penalty could be the NAACP's loss of its tax-exempt status, which allows contributors to make tax-deductible donations but restricts an organization's lobbying activities.

Bond said the audit will have little effect on his opening convention speech tomorrow for the weeklong gathering. "We believe that every citizen has the right to be critical of people in power, whether they are heads of tax-exempt organizations or not," he said. "And I'm going to continue to be critical."

Bond is known to push a few buttons during his addresses.

Bond said that this year he plans to be no less provocative. Among the issues he said he will discuss: the Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"This [audit] won't impact what I'm going to say - there's no reason that it should," Bond said. "I didn't say anything a year ago that I shouldn't have said."

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