WASHINGTON -- A lawyer for ousted NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. portrayed him yesterday as "tainted" and desperate -- a man whose reputation is in tatters because he was fired, who has no income to support his family, with his wife expecting twins in October.
Abbey G. Hairston, the lawyer, told a District of Columbia Superior Court judge that he should immediately order the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to give Dr. Chavis, 46, his job back because the NAACP board fired the civil rights leader Saturday in violation of its own bylaws.
Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. said he would rule this morning on the request that he block the NAACP from firing Dr. Chavis or naming a replacement.
"The NAACP will continue to function," Ms. Hairston told the judge, "but what will Dr. Chavis do? We've had board members perpetuate the notion to the public at large that Dr. Chavis is, essentially, a crook."
Dr. Chavis, wearing a striped tie in NAACP blue and gold, sat through
the hour-long hearing. He would not comment afterward. His wife, Martha, was also in the courtroom.
The fired NAACP leader has in recent days said he loves the NAACP and called his ouster a "lynching" and "crucifixion." Yesterday afternoon, at the conclusion of a black leadership summit he organized in Baltimore and held despite his ouster, he refused to talk about the suit.
"Our unity is more important than some court decision," he said. Asked why he did not postpone filing the suit to avoid disrupting the summit, he called questions about the court action "out of order."
Lawrence S. Greenwald, a Baltimore lawyer representing the NAACP, told Judge Dixon that the civil rights group's board had voted 53 to 5 to fire Dr. Chavis because "he had violated his fiduciary obligations to the association in a very significant way."
Dr. Chavis was fired after the board learned that he had made a deal on behalf of the NAACP to pay Mary E. Stansel, a former aide, up to $332,400 after she threatened to sue him. Neither the board nor the NAACP general counsel knew of the November 1993 settlement.
The deal became public after Ms. Stansel charged June 30 in a lawsuit that the NAACP had reneged on the agreement. She says Dr. Chavis sexually harassed her, which he denies.
Mr. Greenwald said Dr. Chavis "purported to sign that agreement on behalf of the association" despite having a "personal financial stake" in the suit. Ms. Stansel sued him individually and also as NAACP executive director.
"The law is clear that when a corporate officer has a financial stake in the outcome of a transaction, he may not alone enter into the transaction without corporate approval," the lawyer said.
Mr. Greenwald said the NAACP would suffer enormous damage if the judge reinstated Dr. Chavis. He said contributors such as the Ford Foundation, which is withholding a $250,000 grant to the NAACP, have lost confidence in Dr. Chavis' management.
"The question on the lips of all contributors is: Why did we agree to pay [Ms. Stansel] $330,000? Why did we agree to pay her anything?" the NAACP lawyer said.
NAACP board members, including former Chavis allies, were outraged yesterday by the lawsuit Dr. Chavis filed late Monday night. NAACP officials had said they would negotiate a severance package with Dr. Chavis, who made about $200,000 a year and lives in a $478,000 house.
Lillian Jackson of Montgomery, Ala., said Dr. Chavis, accompanied by his lawyers, had a fair hearing before the board. She said he was distorting the facts about his firing.
"If he had any genuine love or concern for this organization and the struggle for equality for black people, he would have resigned to start with," she said.
"He is trying to make African-Americans think that the board of directors fired him because we were under pressure by white corporations," Ms. Jackson said. "It's unfair that he is trying to deceive black America with these lies."
Dr. Robert W. Gilliard of Mobile, Ala., said Dr. Chavis was allowed to fully present his position at the board meeting.
"What could he say? How much can you talk on a problem that's obvious? He had his wife in there with him. He had his law firm with him. There's just nothing more that I think we could have done," he said.
Leon W. Russell, a Clearwater, Fla., board member, said the board had met several times with Dr. Chavis about his performance. He said the executive director met with legal committee members Friday night and Saturday morning before the showdown with the full board.
"The bottom line is there was a clear vote of no confidence," Mr. Russell said. "He always referred to his hiring as an election. He's never seen it for what it is. We hired a staff person. . . . That's again part of the problem -- you don't understand your role."
Kelly M. Alexander Jr., a Charlotte, N.C., board member who long defended Dr. Chavis, said he was puzzled by the former executive director's defiant reaction to the board's loss of confidence in his management, including the minister's saying that he had been crucified and resurrected.
"Metaphors of crucifixion aside, I think he is really saddling up the wrong horse," said Mr. Alexander, referring to the lawsuit. "It is not comprehensible to the average person, including myself, what the purpose of all this is."
John J. Mance of Granada Hills, Calif., a longtime Chavis supporter on the board, said: "There's no way for Chavis to come back, in my opinion. No way. Unless we ourselves wanted to kill the NAACP."
Larry W. Carter of Des Moines, Iowa, a board member who stuck with Dr. Chavis to the end, said the ousted executive director had no chance Saturday to defend his relationship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the NAACP's deficit of more than $3 million and other leadership issues for which some board members blamed him.
"I begged and pleaded and cajoled with my fellow board members not to do it this way," he said. "I think they left a lot of loopholes in it. . . . If that was fair, I don't want anything like that fairness. I told my fellow board members that was a lynch mob."
Ms. Hairston argued yesterday that Dr. Chavis had not received notice that his job was on the line Saturday, despite three weeks of media speculation on whether he would be fired.
Mr. Chavis' lawyer said the judge could compel the NAACP to "come to the table and sit down with us and handle this matter and get this all behind us."
"Money is not the issue here for Dr. Chavis," she said. "He can't mingle equally right now with other civil rights leaders. He has been tainted by this whole process."
Mr. Greenwald responded by telling Judge Dixon that Washington was not the proper place for the suit to be heard. The NAACP is incorporated in New York and has headquarters in Baltimore.
He also argued that Dr. Chavis' contract gave the board the right to fire him for cause. He said that Dr. Chavis could opt to sue the NAACP for breach of contract instead of seeking an emergency court order to get his job back.
As for Dr. Chavis' reputation, the lawyer said a "court order requiring he be reinstated can't repair the damage a 53-5 vote of the board of directors has caused."
Dennis C. Hayes, NAACP general counsel, said after the hearing that it is "hard to sit down and discuss amicably resolving something when you're being dragged into court. . . . I heard her say money is not the issue, yet she told the judge that because [Dr. Chavis] is not receiving a paycheck, that constitutes irreparable injury."