By George E. Curry
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – After intense internal fighting, court battles and competing board of directors that have characterized Sacramento, Calif. Kevin Johnson’s term as president of the National Conference of Black Mayors since last May, his first month in office, a judge has ruled decidedly in Johnson’s favor, effectively firing Executive Director Vanessa R. Williams and nullifying all actions of the rump board challenging Johnson’s right to remain in office.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher S. Brasher issued his ruling in Atlanta last week.
”We’re gratified that the court has validated the election of our leadership and vindicated our efforts to take the necessary steps to restore accountability and fiscal integrity to this venerable and critical organization,” Johnson said in a statement. “Now we can move forward by taking the actions that will address any outstanding problems we have in order to ensure that the NCBM will benefit current and future mayors and their constituents.”
In some ways, it may be a Pyrrhic victory for Johnson. He is limited to one term, which expires in May. Johnson is also vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is a leading candidate to become president of the group in June.
When he was elected president of the Black mayors last May, many members thought he was just what the group needed. After all, it was still reeling from its previous president, George L. Grace, Sr. of tiny St. Gabriel, La., being sentenced to 22 years in prison for stealing from the organization. Grace, who set up secret NCBM bank accounts in his name in Louisiana, was convicted of bribery, obstruction of justice, mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements and violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ACT (RICO) and use of an interstate facility in the aid of racketeering.
In addition to illegally diverting money from the Black mayors’ group, Grace was also found guilty of extorting businessmen seeking to do business with the city and demanding kickbacks from operators setting up temporary housing in his city for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Former President Robert Bowser, who had preceded Grace in the top job, was called back into temporary service to help stabilize the organization, Bowser, mayor of East Orange, N.J., was initially convinced that Kevin Johnson provided the fresh face and name recognition that would help the organization recover from George Grace’s disgraceful conduct.
And Bowser was not alone. Johnson was unanimously elected president by voice vote on May 30, 2013. The former Phoenix Suns point guard vowed to “shake up things” and called a business meeting for the next day. It was clear that unlike presidents who viewed their role as largely ceremonial, Johnson was going to be different.
According to minutes of the meeting, “Upon a motion made by Mayor Johnny Ford, which was seconded by Mayor Oliver Gilbert, the Board of Directors voted to delegate to the Special Task Force, the power of the Board for the following purposes: (1) to comprehensively investigate facts concerning NCBM’s 501 ( c ) (3) status, any litigation involving NCBM, and the financial and business affairs, obligations and duties of NCBM; (2) to supervise the management of the ordinary affairs of NCBM; and (3) to engage Ballard Spahr LLP, as its counsel, and such other professionals, and to take such other actions as the Special Task Force deems necessary and appropriate to accomplish these purposes.”
The motion passed unanimously.
Realizing that they had ceded their power to the Special Task Force headed by Johnson, board members loyal to Executive Director Vanessa Williams, whom Johnson made no secret about his intent to fire, began a counterinsurgency movement.
On June 13, just two weeks into Johnson’s term, General Counsel Susan “Sue” Winchester sent a memo saying that acting on a request from Otis Wallace, the parliamentarian, she had examined the record of the May 30th election and determined that it was invalid because it did not comply with the organization’s bylaws.
Specifically, Winchester said several provisions of the bylaws were violated, including the establishment of a nominating committee, the requirement for secret balloting and making sure that only eligible members voted.
Winchester wrote in all capital letters: “THE BOARD AND OFFICERS OF NCBM UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF PRESIDENT MAYOR BOWSER IS STILL EFFECTIVE AND VALID.”
And for more than eight months, two boards held themselves out to the public as the sole governing body.
Johnson and Treasurer Patrick Green of Normandy, Mo. went to court to force Vanessa Williams and Mayor Bowser to turn over documents needed to conduct a forensic audit. When Williams refused, Judge Brasher issued an injunction compelling her to comply.
With records in hand – and leaked to the local news media – supporters of Johnson found not just a smoking gun but what they consider a whole gun show. Williams, the executive director, had written numerous checks to herself, to her husband and to a Christian academy for her son’s tuition. And there were checks to high-end stores: Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, Louis Vuitton, Nordstrom and St. John Knits. There were repeated ATM withdrawals, money spent on toys and nail salons.
A memo written by an accounting firm hired by the Special Task Force noted on Aug. 14, 2013: “Our analysis identified a number of expenditures that appear to be questionable business expenses of NCBM. In summary, based on our analysis of the above-referenced banking records, we identified approximately $623,000 of questionable payments….”
Auditors said that amount “does not include significant amounts of payments we identified for travel, fuel, restaurants, general merchandise stores (including Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, etc.), grocery stores, specialty retailers (Hobby Lobby, Haverty’s Furniture, Best Buy, Apple Store, etc.) or purchases for less than $100 at locations not identified above (including Apple iTunes, Hollywood Video, bookstores, drug stores, etc.).”
Williams has contended that NCBM owed her a considerable amount of back pay. In lieu of paying her, Williams asserts, the board allowed her to use the association’s credit card for personal expenses until the charges equal her back pay.
On Sept. 6, 2013, the board headed by Mayor Johnson fired Williams “due to your failure over a sustained period of several years to fulfil core duties and responsibilities of the Executive Director of NCBM and your recent admissions regarding your use of the bank accounts of NCBM and the NCBM Title Company for personal expenditures totaling at least $632,000 without board approval.”
But the other board that did not recognize Johnson as president voted to retain Williams and ignore any actions taken by the group headed by Kevin Johnson.
As both groups remained divided, it created awkward moments. At a world conference of mayors in Colombia last year, both factions were claiming to legitimately represent the Black mayors. A conference planned for Bermuda next October was cancelled because of the conflict.
“NCBM Executive Director Vanessa Williams spent five days in Bermuda earlier this month on a fact-finding mission to ensure that the Island had suitable facilities to host the conference,” the Royal Gazette newspaper reported. The island paper continued, “The trip was paid for by the Corporation [of Hamilton], which held a reception at City Hall in Ms. Williams honour…
“A spokesman for the NCBM has since confirmed to The Royal Gazette that Ms. Williams was dismissed by the NCBM Board last year, and that she no longer has any association with the NCBM. The spokesman added that the NCBM had no knowledge of any conference being held in Bermuda.”
The story continued, “And last night Mayor Graeme Outerbridge acknowledged that the success of the conference hinged on the participation of the NCBM – and that, with Ms. Williams’ credibility now under question, the future of the conference was in doubt.”
Mayor Browser lost his re-election bid in East Orange, N.J. As of Jan. 1, 2014, he was out of office and thus ineligible for continued membership in NCBM. Even if he had been recognized as the duly elected president of the organization, he would have been forced to resign when he was defeated in New Jersey.
Unless reversed, Judge Brasher’s ruling will settle the dispute between the two factions for good.
“The record shows that Mayor Johnson was both nominated by the Committee on Nominations, and from the floor by an eligible member,” the judge wrote in his opinion. “No other nominations were made. Though it is possible that ineligible members voted, a sufficient number of eligible voters voted, a sufficient number of eligible members also voted in an oral vote presided over by the Chair of the Nominating Committee. Mayor Bowser could have required that the vote be cast by secret ballot, but he did not. In the end, Mayor Johnson was unanimously elected President of the NCBM.”
He also said, “Through his actions, Mayor Bowser, indeed the entire electorate, waived compliance with the Bylaws’ requirement that a secret ballot be held to elect the new President, and that an election supervisor handle the election…The Court finds that Mayor Johnson was validly elected as President of the NCBM on May 30, 2013.”