Standing in the glare of TV lights and holding her husband's hand, Susan E. Tisdale yesterday described her relationship with the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. as a "platonic friendship" and quietly insisted that an earlier allegation of sexual harassment against the NAACP executive director was a "misunderstanding."
Mrs. Tisdale, a 32-year-old homemaker from suburban Cleveland who worked at the NAACP in the spring, characterized her problem with Dr. Chavis as "an employment concern," the nature of which "was a private matter."
"I am here to publicly state that the employment concerns I had with Dr. Chavis and the NAACP have been mutually and fully resolved without any monetary compensation or promise of monetary compensation or any other promise from the NAACP, Dr. Chavis or any other party," she said at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore.
Mrs. Tisdale and her husband of 14 1/2 years, Brent Tisdale, came to Baltimore to attend a news conference called by Dr. Chavis, who addressed issues ranging from sexual harassment allegations to his embattled post at the 85-year-old organization.
Reading from a carefully worded, five-page statement, Mrs. Tisdale made no mention of the "advances" she alleged Dr. Chavis made toward her while she worked as a secretary to Dr. Chavis' wife, Martha, and for which she had been seeking $100,000 for "emotional distress."
Those allegations were included in a letter sent to the NAACP in April by Mrs. Tisdale's lawyer, who said that his client was considering suing the NAACP.
Although she described Dr. Chavis' behavior as "improper" in an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer yesterday, Mrs. Tisdale said nothing of it at the news conference. Instead, she said a private concern that she had initially tried to work out with the help of a lawyer had become "a public situation."
She blamed it on a "campaign to destroy the career of Dr. Chavis and oust him as executive director of the NAACP." And she accused NAACP board member Joseph E. Madison and "others" of using her as "a pawn" in this effort.
"How dare you publicly drag me and my family through the mud to try and smear Ben Chavis?" asked Mrs. Tisdale.
The NAACP board of directors meets today to hear Dr. Chavis' explanation of why he agreed last fall to pay up to $332,400 to head off a sexual harassment lawsuit threatened by a former aide, Mary E. Stansel.
In response to Mrs. Tisdale's allegations, Mr. Madison, a Washington, D.C., broadcaster and NAACP board member, said had never met Mrs. Tisdale and "up until this week, I never knew Mrs. Tisdale worked for the organization."
"I'm just astonished that someone who initiated a complaint in April and pursued that complaint for five months would now come forth and say that I and others conspired to use her complaint to bring down Dr. Chavis when we were first made aware of her complaint this week . . . " said Mr. Madison.
"My concern is the NAACP. I take that seriously."
In her statement yesterday, Mrs. Tisdale professed her support of Dr. Chavis and his ability to lead the NAACP "into the 21st century as a stronger, more focused and productive organization." She would answer no questions.
Dr. Chavis, however, did take several questions from reporters. He described the relationship between himself and Mrs. Tisdale as "the employer and the employee" and said he had been "falsely accused" by the news media.
"The Baltimore Sun has mud on its face," Dr. Chavis said of the newspaper's article yesterday on Mrs. Tisdale's sexual harassment allegations.
"There was a misunderstanding between Ms. Tisdale and myself about employment," the 46-year-old minister said. "As a result of discussions we had, we resolved those. There is no sexual harassment and no sexual discrimination."
When asked if he had an inappropriate relationship with either Mrs. Tisdale or Ms. Stansel, Dr. Chavis repeated his previous characterization of their association:
"The relationship I have had with Ms. Tisdale and Ms. Stansel is a relationship of employer to employee," he said.
Even though Mrs. Tisdale's lawyer was talking to the NAACP in May, the first sexual harassment allegations against Dr. Chavis didn't surface until June.
Then, Ms. Stansel, a 49-year-old Washington lawyer, filed a lawsuit against Dr. Chavis and the NAACP. She claimed that they had reneged on the settlement forged last fall and she accused Dr. Chavis of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and wrongful discharge.
Within weeks, the name of Susan Tisdale was being whispered within and outside the NAACP as yet another former employee to have accused Dr. Chavis of sexual harassment.
Reporters began knocking on the door of her South Euclid home. They called her house -- one evening, she said, every hour until midnight.
Steadfastly, she refused to discuss her allegations against Dr. Chavis, whom she met when the NAACP director headed the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice in Cleveland. Her lawyer, Lawrence Floyd, did the same.
Meanwhile, members of the NAACP board of directors received a summary of her allegations of sexual harassment in documents prepared for today's special meeting by a law firm that represented Dr. Chavis in the Stansel matter.
As several newspapers prepared to publish articles that would name her, Mrs. Tisdale flew to Baltimore. The NAACP did not pay for the Tisdales' flight here, a spokeswoman said. Mrs. Tisdale said she came forward "to speak to the rumors" surrounding her former employment with the NAACP.
Mrs. Tisdale said she knew the Chavises for two years, when they lived in Cleveland. The couples so cialized. Their children played together. She came to work at the NAACP in Baltimore in January and worked for Mrs. Chavis, who oversees the NAACP's women's auxiliary.
The Chavises "extended an offer of hospitality" -- she lived in the couple's $478,000 house in a Howard County development -- while she looked for her own place. Mrs. Tisdale did not describe why or how her employment was terminated in March. As to the charge of sexual harassment contained in documents that she contends were "illegally obtained," Mrs. Tisdale said:
"This is a misunderstanding. My employment concerns and the nature of them have been resolved. Sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are not issues. If anyone implies differently, it would be a further defamation of my character."