WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., taking the offensive in the controversy over a secret deal he made with a fired employee, released a letter yesterday that he said proved the case had nothing to do with sexual harassment.
"You all have kind of smeared my name all over the nation, attaching it to sexual harassment," the embattled NAACP leader told reporters at the National Press Club. "At no time was this an issue."
Dr. Chavis, flanked by his pregnant wife, Martha, said he had "no intention of resigning. . . . I've done nothing wrong."
The 46-year-old minister and civil rights veteran has been under fire for settling a threatened lawsuit with Mary E. Stansel, a former aide, for up to $332,400 without telling his board of directors.
Dr. Chavis and the NAACP pledged to pay Ms. Stansel $82,400 while helping to find her an $80,000-a-year job elsewhere. If no job offer was forthcoming, they would pay her $250,000.
The November 1993 deal came to light last month after Ms. Stansel filed suit June 30, charging that Dr. Chavis and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had reneged on the agreement. In that suit, she says gender discrimination, wrongful discharge and sexual harassment, which isn't mentioned in the agreement, were the bases of her claim.
Yesterday, Dr. Chavis released a July 7 letter from Rose M. Sanders, an Alabama lawyer who represented Ms. Stansel in the settlement negotiations, to her client. Ms. Sanders describes herself in the letter as a long-standing friend of both Dr. Chavis and Ms. Stansel who worked on the deal for free.
"I advised you on several occasions that you did not have a sexual harassment case against Dr. Chavis," Ms. Sanders told Ms. Stansel in the letter, which noted that it was dictated by Ms. Sanders "but signed in her absence at her request."
Ms. Sanders wrote that sexual harassment was not at issue in the settlement talks and shouldn't have been mentioned in the lawsuit. "Therefore, I have no alternative but to make it clear to all parties concerned that . . . you included the sexual harassment claim in the complaint without my knowledge or consent," Ms. Sanders wrote.
Ms. Sanders, a 1969 Harvard Law School graduate, could not be reached. A secretary at her Selma, Ala., firm said the lawyer was hospitalized and unavailable. Ms. Stansel, a 49-year-old lawyer, did not return phone calls.
Dr. Chavis' lawyer, Abbey G. Hairston, said she received the letter while preparing the NAACP leader's defense. She said she didn't ask Ms. Sanders to write it.
Dr. Chavis, who took the NAACP helm in April 1993, said he called the news conference partly because the Ford Foundation, a major contributor, had inquired about Ms. Stansel's sexual harassment allegations.
He said he wanted to make sure that the Baltimore-based NAACP, which faces a deficit of nearly $3 million, didn't suffer financially because of "false allegations." He said donations haven't dropped so far.
Ms. Hairston said Ms. Stansel had been the plaintiff in a half-dozen lawsuits, including a defamation case that the National Bar Association settled for $5,000 and a $500,000 injury claim against Eastern Airlines that Ms. Stansel lost.
Ms. Hairston said her firm did not check into Ms. Stansel's background before the NAACP settlement. She said Ms. Stansel had an impressive resume and seemed to be acting in good faith.
Several questions went unanswered at the news conference:
* Dr. Chavis, "on the advice of counsel," would not say how long he had known Ms. Stansel and what their relationship had been.
* Dr. Chavis said there was precedent at the NAACP for settling a claim with an employee without telling the board, but he did not elaborate.
* Ms. Hairston did not explain why NAACP board members found no mention in NAACP financial reports of $64,000 in payments already made to Ms. Stansel nor why the $250,000 the fired aide is suing for was not listed as a contingent liability. (The NAACP says unidentified "friends" paid another $18,400 to Ms. Stansel on the group's behalf.)
It was also unclear why Dr. Chavis did not consult the NAACP general counsel about the Stansel case.
Despite some public calls for his resignation, he said he had "overwhelming support" in the NAACP.
The NAACP board is to hold an emergency meeting on the Stansel case Aug. 20 in Baltimore.