Baltimore Urban League to oust leader


Confronted by a dire financial and leadership crisis, the board of directors of the Baltimore Urban League decided yesterday to oust its longtime president.

The board will send a letter to Roger I. Lyons seeking his resignation by Wednesday, said several sources after the private, somber meeting.

Lyons, who has led the organization for 12 years, has been on medical leave for several weeks and did not return calls.

Internal League documents obtained by The Sun paint a bleak financial picture of an organization besieged by creditors and vendors. Mortgage payments on the historic Orchard Street Church, headquarters of the league, were months behind.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. sent the organization notices that the power would be shut off because past due payments had run into the thousands of dollars.

As of March, the league owed $54,000 in payroll taxes and about $76,000 in rent on its Mondawmin office.

Lenneal J. Henderson Jr., board chairman, would not comment on the financial items or Lyons' future, citing restrictions on discussing personnel matters. He said the board would make an announcement in a week to 10 days.

"The board is still discussing the Roger Lyons situation. We are more focused on raising money right now," he said.

Henderson said the board realized "months ago" that "something needs to be done ... and resolved to do something. The board hasn't been sitting on its hands."

Henderson said the league needs $600,000 to $700,000 to get out of its financial hole.

"Fund raising in this town is not an easy task, I can tell you, especially on the scale that we're talking about," he said.

One reason the board decided to oust Lyons is that the philanthropic community has lost confidence in Lyons' leadership and organizations were reluctant to make any contributions until he resigned, sources said.

Henderson replied: "Not a single funding source has reduced that statement to writing. They may feel that way, but I don't know.

"As of today no one has written me, or [acting CEO] Howard Henderson any correspondence that says if you remove Roger Lyons, we'll give you money."

Yesterday morning's board meeting began with the Rev. Marcus Wood, pastor of Providence Baptist Church, saying a prayer in hopes the board could "someday return this organization to what it once was."

The league has been a fixture in Baltimore for 75 years, promoting racial harmony and offering employment and social programs to help the poor and disadvantaged.

"The Urban League's importance to this community goes beyond one individual, and I think once it gets its financial house in order it's going to come out strong," said one source close to the board. "I don't think the city of Baltimore wants the Urban League to go out of business."

The league's recent financial problems have been long in the making.

"In September 1999, I told the board that there would be a $500,000 [deficit] for the fiscal year that ends June 30 [2000]. I told them in no uncertain terms," said Wilkins McNair Jr., former board treasurer.

"It's very difficult for me to understand how old-time board members can sit around and act like they didn't know."

The Orchard Street Church has become a major financial headache. The purchase, renovation and maintenance brought crushing financial obligations that drained as much as $200,000 each year, he said.

Henderson said the league is talking to Orioles owner Peter Angelos about possibly refinancing the mortgage, but nothing has been decided.

Despite the financial burden, Henderson says the purchase still stands as one of Lyons' most significant achievements. The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad route that slaves took on their escape to freedom.

"I recognize that the building has been somewhat of a challenge for us, but it was a very good move to make," he said. "I can't tell you how valuable that move is from a historical point of view. We would have lost that building completely had it not been for Mr. Lyons."

The league's involvement in the political corruption case of former state Sen. Larry Young also helped cripple the organization financially and marred its reputation.

Federal prosecutors contended in a civil lawsuit that the Urban League and Young "knowingly" submitted fraudulent bills and used falsified records to "conceal" payments from the federal government.

The league paid tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees in connection with the case, which ended last year with a consent decree requiring the league to pay a $40,000 penalty.

"All of these ills from the past were coming to haunt the league," said McNair. "Instead of focusing on fund raising and raising revenue and the strategic direction of the league ... everyone was distracted."

The board is also looking into a raise Lyons received, increasing his annual salary from about $90,000 to $115,000. Sources said it's unclear whether the entire board approved the raise.

Henderson would not discuss the raise.

He said he and other board members are trying to focus on making the league financially solvent, rather than pointing fingers and placing blame. High on the list is finding the money to pay for audits that league officials sought to assure potential contributors.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said league representatives came to him two months ago seeking about $47,000 to pay for the audits. The foundation decided against paying the league's expense.

"It didn't rank high enough with all the other things we had before us," said Embry. "They were unable to supply any verification that anybody would give money if the audits were done."

Henderson said the top priority is to restore public confidence and find donors.

"I'll take a white knight, a black knight, a brown knight," said Henderson, urging people not to give up on the organization.

"I hope they, like we, focus on the bigger picture. It is possible and not only possible but probable that we will resurrect this organization, but it requires public support."

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