NAACP looks ahead after examining audit


MINNEAPOLIS -- Myrlie B. Evers-Williams completed her first NAACP convention as chairwoman yesterday convinced that the worst was over for the nation's largest civil rights group.

An exhausted Mrs. Evers-Williams emerged from an 11-hour board meeting that ended in the wee hours to assure contributors that "their dimes and dollars will be expended only to promote the ideals and the vision of the NAACP."

An audit found that former Chairman William F. Gibson charged nearly $112,000 in questionable expenses to the NAACP and that fired Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. spent more than $32,000 in NAACP funds on personal items. The board released a summary of the audit at 1:15 a.m. yesterday.

Mrs. Evers-Williams, 62, who defeated Dr. Gibson by one vote for the chairmanship in February, said financial controls are now in place to make sure such abuses don't happen again at the

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"All of this was a shock to most board members," she said yesterday in an interview. "We had really no idea as to the way things have been mismanaged in the last couple of years."

The audit "tells us how lax we have been in managing our funds. By not having controls in place, things got out of hand," she said.

The findings were referred to the NAACP general counsel, who is to recommend any further steps within 60 days.

Mrs. Evers-Williams did not rule out the possibility of criminal prosecution, but board members said the general sentiment was to end the matter without more rancor by working out a settlement with Dr. Gibson. A year of turmoil has angered NAACP members and cut into corporate donations.

Dr. Gibson, who did not cooperate fully with the investigation of his spending, left Minneapolis early yesterday morning. He stayed largely out of public view during the convention. Gibson supporters said he believed he had been treated unfairly.

Dr. Chavis, who was fired in August, could not be reached for comment. Mrs. Evers-Williams said he was negotiating the payback of about $25,000.

The most outspoken board critics of the Chavis-Gibson leadership said they were satisfied with the Coopers & Lybrand audit, which was ordered by the board in October.

"I think we can get ahead now and start dealing with civil rights and put this behind us," said Joseph E. Madison of Washington. "This has been a good lesson for all of us. Common sense should tell you to be careful spending other people's money if you're working for a nonprofit civil rights organization."

Hazel N. Dukes of New York said she was "satisfied that it's over. I do feel vindicated. The audit showed some decisions that were not in the best interest of the NAACP."

While relieved the audit was done, Mrs. Evers-Williams said the NAACP still faces unremitting money troubles. The organization is $3.8 million in debt.

Unlike last year's convention, at which Dr. Chavis papered over financial problems and pushed through costly new initiatives, the 2,200 delegates here were told how serious the deficit is -- and were urged to raise money among the group's more than 400,000 members.

"We're not just faced with paying off the debt. We're faced with keeping the doors open on a day-to-day basis," Mrs. Evers-Williams said.

NAACP Treasurer Francisco L. Borges said payment is owed to an assortment of creditors, ranging from printers of direct-mail solicitations to hotels that housed last year's convention. "Some are 90 days past due; some are a year or two," he said.

Mrs. Evers-Williams said the board did not approve more cuts.

About 50 NAACP employees have lost their jobs in the past year, cutting the national staff in half. The organization is based in Baltimore.

The NAACP has fired its fund-raiser, who has taken the group to court. He claims he is owed more than $394,000.

Although the group will soon contract with a new fund-raiser, Mrs. Evers-Williams said: "Mailings have not gone out, and we're left with whatever contributions come in and whatever I can get as I visit foundations and corporations."

Amid financial headaches, the convention did welcome speeches on civil rights by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., President Clinton's failed nominee for surgeon general.

Mrs. Clinton expressed her husband's commitment to affirmative action, urged the NAACP to register voters and said: "You can't roll up your sleeves if you're wringing your hands. It's time we rolled up our sleeves."

Dr. Foster called the 37 percent turnout of eligible black voters in 1994 a "disgrace to the NAACP. . . . On this issue we can't blame anybody else. Black folks who fail to vote as far as I'm concerned are outcasts."

In a final bit of convention business, the NAACP passed without discussion a resolution opposing privatization of public school management, which the group contends eliminates jobs for blacks.

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