Carl O. Snowden, a longtime Annapolis alderman and a leading mayoral candidate, heads an organization that has collected thousands of dollars in the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. over the past nine years but is not registered as a charity.
Whether the organization -- the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Committee -- has violated state law by not registering is being examined by the office of Maryland's secretary of state.
Under the Maryland Charitable Solicitations Act, if an organization raises $1 or more in charitable contributions, it must register with the secretary of state, said Jennifer Light, a spokeswoman for the office's Charitable Organization Division.
The committee consists of 27 Snowden friends and campaign donors. Snowden said it is "an ad hoc citizens group," and for that reason he believes it does not have to register.
It raises money by selling tickets and program advertising for an annual January awards dinner begun in 1989, commemorating the birthday of the slain civil rights leader. Food and the nightclub site are donated.
Snowden, 43, said the committee discusses informally what groups to give money to, but it does not accept applications for grants and doesn't actually vote.
Checks for the $25 tickets and from Anne Arundel County businesses that took ads in the program this year were to be made out to "Keeping the Dream Alive." Publicity for the event listed as contacts the post office box and work telephone number of Snowden, who describes himself as a "consultant for change" in discrimination cases.
Snowden told The Sun he handled the committee's financial dealings until hiring an accountant a few months ago. Based on the attendance of about 400 and advertising rates for the program book, it appears that this year's dinner took in about $15,000. But Snowden said he could not verify that figure.
He also could not say where money raised by the annual dinners has gone, except to name three local activist groups. Those groups said they have received intermittent and small donations.
Snowden said in a written statement that the dinner does not make a profit, although "some money raised is carried over from year to year to cover the cost of next year's event (invitations, programs, etc.)."
He said in an interview that questions about the dinners are part of an effort by political opponents to damage his candidacy for mayor.
"In '68, Dr. King was assassinated, and in '97, it appears to be an assassination of character," he said.
Snowden said that Arnold Williams, the Baltimore accountant he hired, will disclose the group's financial records and that the group will register as a charity if Williams recommends doing so. Williams says he needs 60 days to review finances for dinners in 1994 through 1996 and will not release information until then.
"If they're raising X amount of dollars for these charities and different community groups, that definitely indicates they're soliciting for a charitable purpose," said Light of the secretary of state's office. "There is no record of this money and that's a problem. It seems to me they're breaking laws."
In response to questions raised by The Sun about the King Day dinner, Light said a "brought to our attention letter" will be sent to the committee asking it to register, or to "explain to us why they don't have to register."
"In any case, Joe Average Citizen who donates to this group cannot check to see where his money is going," Light said.
The Annapolis committee's activities also were unknown to the King estate in Atlanta.
"To have a dinner, raise money and use the King name, technically, it is an infringement on Dr. King's name because as a private citizen, his name may not be used like that without the permission of his estate," said Phillip Jones, chairman and chief executive officer of Intellectual Properties Management Inc., which manages the estate.
"If they are not registered as a nonprofit organization and they are raising money in the King name, then that concerns us," he said in a telephone interview.
The Sun could find no groups that have received a grant from the committee this year and contacted officials with the three organizations Snowden named as past beneficiaries.
Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a 1997 dinner award winner, said his organization got $1,500 last year for youth memberships. "We don't get a set amount of money from the committee every year," he said.
A past officer of the Black Political Forum, who asked not to be named, confirmed that it has received donations from the dinner committee, but not on an annual basis and not for amounts larger than $1,000.
Edith M. Knight, chief executive officer of the Community Action Agency, said her group has received about $1,000 from the dinner committee in the past couple of years.
Nine members of the committee did not answer requests for interviews. Three members declined to comment. Member Carol Gerson Higgs said she helped sell tickets but had nothing else to do with the committee.
Snowden's 1996 campaign finance reports list at least 11 members who also contributed to his campaign: Morris H. Blum, Alan H. Legum, Lewis A. Bracy, Bertina A. Nick, Howard Washington, Elizamae Robinson, Anthony Spencer, DeLorma Goodwyn, Vaughn T. Phillips, Vincent O. Leggett and Higgs. Dinner programs list six of these as past recipients of awards given at the King dinner.
The event has been held at Buddy's Late Night, a Parole nightclub owned by Harvey Blonder, and earlier at his crab restaurant in downtown Annapolis.
"I give it complimentary to them and I have done that every year," Blonder said. "Good will in the community, that's what we really get out of it."
Blonder, a former award recipient along with three members of his family, said he deducts his contribution of the food and use of the nightclub as a business expense.
Corporate sponsors also are listed as donors in the program. This year that included Denny's. The restaurant chain has spent millions of dollars to make amends and settle civil rights complaints since being sued in 1993 by a group of black Secret Service agents who said they were denied service at an Annapolis Denny's.
Karen Randall, a spokeswoman for Flagstar, the parent company for Denny's restaurants, said, "We made a cash contribution to help cover the cost of the dinner. It was our assumption that it was a charitable organization and we were approached by Carl Snowden."
Pub Date: 5/07/97