By Kelly Brewington and Ivan Penn and Greg Barrett
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.
Findings in the report - first disclosed last month by The Washington Post - raised questions about such actions as a $20,000 pay increase Mfume awarded to a woman after less than six months on the job, and the promotions and salary increases for female employees apparently lacking adequate documented experience.
Neither the 1999 memo nor the 2004 report reaches conclusions about whether any of the allegations are true.
Michele Speaks, the employee whose complaint launched the most recent investigation, was given only one $5,000 raise in 4 1/2 years, according to the report. The NAACP settled her complaint for about $100,000, paid from the organization's treasury, according to a source familiar with the negotiations who requested anonymity because of the agreement's confidentiality terms.
Mfume, who arrived at the NAACP in 1996, when the organization was reeling from Chavis' sex scandal and mired in $3 million debt, rejected comparisons between these allegations and the incidents a decade ago. Chavis had resigned after a deal became public to pay more than $300,000 in NAACP funds to a former female aide threatening a sexual harassment claim.
"The allegations are absolutely different. That's a broad reach to say they're similar allegations," Mfume said.
The work environment at the Baltimore office was not addressed by the NAACP leadership after the 1999 memo for fear of sullying the civil rights group's already frail reputation, according to the source familiar with the deliberations.
"People were afraid to look into it too strongly because of the specter of the Chavis incident hanging over their head," the source said. "They were shy of the Chavis example and thought wrongly that this could maybe go away."
Michael Meyers, a former assistant director of the NAACP and executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, said sexual scandals and harassment have been a problem at the civil rights organization for years. He said it is past time for the NAACP's leadership to deal with the issue. "It's a demeaning atmosphere," he said. "It's appalling, shameful behavior."
According to the 2004 report, Speaks complained that after rebuffing an advance by Mfume, she was passed over for raises and a promotion. While Speaks received favorable job evaluations from her immediate supervisor, a female co-worker who was cited for poor performance after four months at the NAACP was later promoted above her, the report said.
Speaks alleged that the woman received preferential treatment because she was dating one of Mfume's sons. The employee has confirmed the relationship to The Sun but said she was more than qualified for the promotion.
Speaks left the NAACP in April 2004 and hired a civil rights attorney, Kathleen Cahill of Baltimore, who has a long record of successful employment discrimination lawsuits. The NAACP asked Chicago attorney Marcia E. Goodman to investigate 10 allegations of favoritism and sexual harassment.
Mfume, who denies having seen the report but is quoted in it, said he doesn't think it was thoroughly researched.
"The attorney was asked to give a worst-case scenario," Mfume told The Sun.
Goodman concluded that the organization would be "unable to defend itself against the allegations" because of a questionable system of promotions and compensations.
The report cites examples of alleged "paramours" of Mfume and his son who received promotions and raises despite poor evaluations, disciplinary actions and relatively little experience.
In one example, an employee hired in 1997 at $19,000 a year received three raises in one year and was earning more than $50,000 by 2001, despite "moderate" performance evaluations.
According to the report, the sister of the woman who received the $20,000 raise after less than six months on the job was herself briefly employed by the NAACP and later received $83,000 in consulting fees from the organization.
A salary analysis by an outside consulting firm in 2000 suggested that the NAACP make some adjustments, but Goodman's report showed that the recommendations were not always followed.
"There were many raises given in the files ... that do not appear to have had any relationship to those recommendations," the report said.
A former NAACP employee said in an interview with The Sun that women were typically paid less than men at the organization, regardless of experience. Eden Brown Gaines, a staff lawyer at the NAACP for about a year in 2002-2003, called her former workplace "a terribly sexist organization."
"If I had thought there was anything I could do to make things better at the NAACP, I would have complained," said Gaines, now a Washington lawyer specializing in employment discrimination and civil rights. "But that kind of unprofessionalism, ignorance and mismanagement was so institutionally ingrained, it was clear I wasn't going to be able to change that."
Meyers, a critic of the NAACP, said it is also past time for Mfume to publicly respond to the allegations, in particular because he is running for Senate.
"He's got to answer the questions. This is the worst example of a person who has no shame," he said. "He must withdraw from that race."
Mfume recently pledged to an enthusiastic crowd at a Democratic rally in Prince George's County that his campaign will not quit.
"I have said over and over again that the unproven allegations are untrue," he said. "If I said it until I was blue in the face, you gotta take my word at that."
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.