Washington. -- At a meeting Saturday that was at times brutally contentious, the NAACP national board took several major steps toward financial responsibility and recovery from a crippling $3.8 million deficit.
It also left the door open to internal warfare that could further imperil the future of this vital civil-rights organization.
On the positive side, the board:
* Voted unanimously for an independent external audit of expenditures made by several officers, especially those of Chairman William Gibson, whom I have accused of charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to an NAACP American Express card while receiving hundreds of thousands more in NAACP checks for unreceipted, unspecified "expenses" during the same period.
* Rejected Dr. Gibson's motion that an internal audit committee, headed by Judge Fred Banks of Mississippi, be "put in abeyance" while the external audit takes place. Many board members said they have great faith the Banks committee will give them the truth.
* Refused to give Dr. Gibson a "vote of confidence" after one of his friends made a late-hour motion for such a vote. But the board allowed Dr. Gibson to retain his post as voluntary, unsalaried chairman pending the audit report.
* Voted unanimously that the expenses of Dr. Gibson and all NAACP officers must be line-items in the budget, and must be reported to the full board at every meeting. The chairman's huge charges and expense collections were never reported to the budget committee, the audit committee or any board meetings. Dr. Gibson says that he "did no wrong" and that all his expenditures were in behalf of the NAACP.
Board member Marc Stepp of Detroit, who is a member of the budget committee and chairman of an emergency fund-raising committee to wipe out the deficit, said that overall it was a positive meeting. "Our branches want fiscal integrity," he said. "The members in the trenches are rising to the cause, bringing $125,000 to this meeting. With these reforms I feel certain that the branches can raise a million dollars by December 31."
Despite these positive results, other board members said the Saturday session set the stage for other acts of self-destruction. They note that Dr. Gibson set the dates to be covered by the independent, external audit -- January 1, 1989, to August 31, 1994 -- which would leave unexamined some four years in which, according to documents in my possession, Dr. Gibson did heavy credit-card spending while collecting tens of thousands of dollars in "reimbursements" from the NAACP.
Members who still call for Dr. Gibson's resignation say he picked those dates to focus on the spending of former executive director Benjamin Hooks and former president Hazel Dukes, so as to say, "They did it too." Documents in my possession show that Dr. Hooks, too, had a credit card, but did not spend at even half the level of Dr. Gibson, and that Dr. Hooks never collected monthly checks for unexplained, alleged reimbursements.
Ms. Dukes' office says she never charged on an American Express card and never received any checks for undocumented expenses -- that "she paid her own way."
There are serious questions as to who will select the "independent" auditors and whether they will get all the pertinent documents from the NAACP's top staff, which is still controlled by Dr. Gibson.
But maintaining Judge Banks' interior audit committee is still crucial, board members say, because this panel's members know what to demand, and the significance of what is not provided.
The NAACP faces perhaps four more months of internecine strife. Then, at the February elections, after audit reports, it possibly can have a new beginning of corruption-free leadership, with its integrity unquestioned regarding the use of donated funds.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.