Academy graduates suing alumni association

The Baltimore Sun

A pair of Naval Academy graduates has sued the school's powerful alumni association, accusing the top leaders of flouting the board's bylaws and demanding they be thrown out for allegedly violating term limits.

The two graduates, backed by a former commandant of the Marine Corps, who filed the lawsuit Monday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, accuse the board of the 48,000-member association of manipulating last year's election to keep the incumbent chairman in office. They point to an ongoing discussion about scrapping elections altogether as further evidence that the alumni association is alienating members.

"We saw that we weren't having any success at all in trying to work through the system to get internal change brought about - as a matter of fact, it looks as if the situation is going to continue to move in the direction of less and less voice for the members," said Michael O. Tackney, a 1964 graduate from Baton Rouge, La., who is one of the plaintiffs. "We decided the best thing to do was to go ahead and take [legal] action."

Association leaders say the complaints come from a small cadre of dissidents who are causing problems because their candidate for chairman was passed over.

"At first blush, [the lawsuit] looks like it's nothing more than the allegations of their May letter, to which we responded in great detail in June," said Skid Heyworth, an association spokesman and 1970 graduate. "It's a distraction. But we are committed to stay on our mission."

The dispute has broad implications for the association, which in recent years has transitioned from a small, membership-driven association to a nonprofit group that raised $34 million in the last fiscal year. Both sides have swapped insults and made sweeping allusions to Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson's writings on tyranny.

All but one of the association's 29 trustees, decorated graduates who live throughout the country and are elected to represent various regions and graduating classes of former midshipmen, are named in the suit. The omitted trustee is on active duty in Afghanistan.

The lawsuit focuses particular attention on retired Adm. Carlisle Trost, a past chief of naval operations and trustees chairman, and vice chairman Corbin McNeill, a former chief executive officer of the nation's largest nuclear utility, who it claims are improperly serving their second terms and stifling discussion on the issue.

In the alumni association, subgroups of graduates - divided by region, chapter or class year - elect all but six of the trustees to three-year terms. The board appoints two of the remaining trustees, usually individuals who diversify the group. Another two seats are reserved for the past board chairman and the association's chief executive. For the remaining two seats, the board chairman appoints a committee made up mostly of other trustees to put chairman and vice chairman candidates on the ballot.

Last year, retired Gen. Charles Krulak, a former commandant of the Marine Corps and past CEO of MBNA Europe, attempted to nominate retired Brig. Gen. Thomas Draude, a 1962 alumnus and Silver Star recipient, as a candidate for chairman.

Following the nominating committee's long-standing practice of vetting candidates, only Trost's name was printed on the ballot. But Draude supporters pressed forward, and he garnered more than 40 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate.

In May, Tackney and fellow 1964 graduate Bill Tate formed an opposition group called the Naval Academy Alumni Action Group, alleging that Draude was wrongly left off the ballot and that the board of trustees had improperly swelled from 25 to 29 members.

The alumni association hit back the next month, posting a 17-page opinion on its Web site that called the bylaws "ambiguous." Trost said in a statement that Maryland law required the board of trustees to act "reasonably" if rules were unclear.

"Your interpretation of the Bylaws that the two-term limit should govern is certainly one reasonable interpretation," Trost wrote. "The board ... adopted another reasonable interpretation of the Bylaws - that is, that a chair is entitled to two elected terms."

From 1939 until 1998, no chair of the board held the position for more than three years. Retired Adm. Leyton W. Smith Jr. then served two terms as chair, from 1998 until 2003. Trost replaced him.

"Boards need the infusion of new energy, new ideas and new styles of leadership in order to remain effective," said Tate, who served Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Leach as chief of staff for 23 years after leaving the Navy. "The action of the leadership is denying that possibility, and denying the members of the association their voice in the running of the association."

Heyworth said a board committee continues to review the bylaws for possible clarifications. A proposal will be considered next month to make the chairman and vice chairman appointees, an approach used by many large university boards.

"When you look at the people who have been the chair of our board, they are people of stature, people who are used to assuming the highest positions in government and citizenship, quite frankly," Heyworth said. "But at the end of the day, the chairman is but one vote of 29."

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