Reports last week that NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis had agreed, without notifying his board of directors, to pay up to $332,400 from the group's treasury to settle out of court a claim of gender discrimination and sexual harassment have thrown the venerable civil rights group into turmoil.
Mr. Chavis has denied any wrongdoing, and board chairman William Gibson has defended him, insisting that Mr. Chavis had "complete, full executive authority" to commit NAACP funds toward resolving the matter without asking for the board's approval. Mr. Gibson promised to convene a special meeting of the board to discuss the charges and Mr. Chavis' response to them. But several board members were furious that he had used NAACP funds to settle a dispute of which they had no knowledge and in a manner that smacked of a cover-up.
The latest controversy comes on top of recent reports that the NAACP is struggling with a $3 million deficit and faces the possible loss of some donors angered by what they see as the new direction Mr. Chavis has charted for the organization. Although membership has risen under Mr. Chavis' tenure, especially among young people, some board members have criticized his financial management of the group and decried his overtures to extremists like Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.
The lawsuit that precipitated the latest flap alleges that Mr. Chavis and the NAACP violated the terms of an agreement reached with a former employee, Mary E. Stansel, who had helped lobby the NAACP's board of directors for Mr. Chavis last year and worked briefly as his administrative assistant before being let go. Under the terms of the agreement, Ms. Stansel was to be paid $50,000, and then six monthly installments of $5,400 in exchange for not bringing suit against Mr. Chavis. The NAACP also agreed to pay Ms. Stansel $250,000 if Chavis could not find her another job that paid at least $80,000 a year. Ms. Stansel said Mr. Chavis reneged on that part.
Mr. Chavis insists the suit has no merit and that Ms. Stansel overstated her qualifications. But the episode has embarrassed the country's oldest civil rights group. That is why the NAACP board must move quickly to resolve the crisis by conducting an investigation to determine whether Mr. Chavis should remain as executive director. Without such an official vote of confidence, Mr. Chavis could easily become more of a liability than an asset to the civil-rights organization.