Mfume says he was not forced out

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Kweisi Mfume denied yesterday that he was forced to resign as president of the NAACP amid allegations of nepotism and sexual harassment, saying someone is trying to derail his campaign for U.S. Senate.

Speaking in Clinton at a rally of African-American Democrats last night, the former congressman insisted the claims are "unproven and unsubstantiated allegations levied against me by some person or people trying to disrupt my campaign."

"My life has been an open book," he said. "I have made that a habit."

Mfume's remarks - which he said would be the last on the topic - come six weeks into his nascent Senate campaign and five months after a much-publicized NAACP resignation speech.

On Nov. 30, he stood before a bank of news cameras and said he was resigning as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to spend more time with his youngest son and to rest.

Yet since what was described by the NAACP as an amicable departure driven solely by Mfume, some within the organization say a significant detail has been kept secret: Mfume was fired.

Prior to his abrupt resignation, the NAACP's 17-member executive committee evaluated its president and delivered a no-confidence vote, said an NAACP board member and former officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating colleagues.

When asked last night if he received a no-confidence vote, the 56-year-old Mfume said: "No. Oh, no. If they did, they didn't give it to me."

"He told me they wouldn't renew his contract, and he got frustrated and he decided to leave," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP and an Mfume supporter. "And he denied all the rumors and any deals that went on."

Others said allegations that Mfume hired and promoted women with whom he had personal relationships created a rift among staff and board members.

But Mfume denied claims that a former female employee threatened a lawsuit, which was first reported yesterday by The Washington Post.

"It makes the chauvinists feel uncomfortable, but so what? In our society, too many women are judged everyday that they got where they are because of their bodies, and not their brains," Mfume said. "That is wrong. That is wrong. ... And personally, as a man, I find that despicable."

According to the Post, a 22-page memorandum - prepared last summer by an NAACP-hired lawyer - included a request by the employee that the civil rights group pay her $140,000, or two years' salary, in exchange for not filing a lawsuit or complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The attorney analyzed the allegations in the report, saying the former employee could claim harassment because her complaints implied "a woman must provide sexual favors to Mr. Mfume or his associates in order to receive favorable treatment in the workplace," the Post reported.

The former employee, Michele Speaks, left the organization about two years ago, after an employee named Monica Newman - who was dating one of Mfume's sons - received a promotion that Speaks wanted.

When Mfume selected Newman, the former chief director of development, some NAACP staff members complained she received preferential treatment because of the relationship - an allegation Newman dismisses as groundless.

Newman, interviewed by The Sun three months ago when allegations first surfaced, said her resume speaks for itself, including a past position as a vice president with Bank of America.

"If anyone would take the time to research my qualifications they would see I was more than qualified for the role," said Newman, who resigned from the NAACP last year to take another job in development.

Contacted several months ago, Speaks refused to discuss the issue. "I don't have a statement about anybody there," she said. "I don't have anything to say about Monica Newman."

When asked last night if the board paid Speaks to settle the complaint, Mfume did not deny that a settlement existed, responding: "You'd have to ask the board."

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has repeatedly refused to say whether the NAACP paid Speaks.

"We make it a practice not to discuss personnel matters," Bond said yesterday during an NAACP board retreat at the Harvard Business School.

When asked if he was bothered that an internal memo was leaked to a news organization, he responded: "If I said it upset me, that would acknowledge that it exists."

Calling from an airport in San Francisco, former NAACP Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams said yesterday she would not comment on the memo because she had not read the Post article. Evers-Williams brought Mfume to the NAACP.

But when reached at her home in Oregon several months ago and asked about Mfume's departure, Evers-Williams said: "I have a policy that is hard to keep sometimes - not to air the NAACP's internal challenges before the world. I will not damage this wonderful organization."

In 1996, Evers-Williams recruited Mfume because "he was a charismatic figure, a leader, a congressman, young, energetic." Following the lavish spending of former board chairman William F. Gibson and the secret settlement of a sexual-harassment claim against Mfume's predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the NAACP needed a fresh face, Evers-Williams said.

Evers-Williams says Mfume made the NAACP more relevant to black youths. But she does not credit him - as others frequently do - for erasing the $3.2 million debt left in the wake of Gibson and Chavis. Through tireless fund-raising efforts, donors had returned to the NAACP by the time Mfume was hired, she said.

NAACP leadership insists the organization is in good financial standing, but during an annual meeting in February, it announced it used reserve funds to cover a $4.7 million budget shortfall and asked a dozen employees at its Baltimore headquarters to take lower-paying positions.

Part of the NAACP's retreat at Harvard will focus on finding a new president, which leaders aim to announce by July. Mfume acknowledged yesterday that he dated an NAACP employee shortly after becoming president.

Meanwhile, longtime NAACP members said that while they have heard speculation for years about Mfume's preferences in hiring young, attractive women, they did not believe the allegations.

"The allegations of hiring all young women, I've heard that," said NAACP board member Hazel Dukes, when contacted a month ago. "But I hear that about a lot of people. You see that in every organization. I don't take these rumors seriously."

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.