Scandals threaten career of black civil rights boss

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WASHINGTON - The largest and most venerable civil rights group in the United States, the NAACP, is embroiled in financial crisis and a leadership scandal. It may cost the organisation its controversial director, Benjamin Chavis and much of its dwindling prestige and influence as a mouthpiece of black America, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The moment of truth for Mr Chavis will come at a special board meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People this weekend in Baltimore, amid allegations that he misused NAACP money to settle a sexual discrimination suit against him by a former employee. Mr Chavis denies all wrongdoing and says he will not resign. Few believe that he can survive.

Since he defeated the Rev Jesse Jackson to become NAACP director in March 1993, Mr Chavis has been a divisive figure. The organisation he inherited was fusty and ineffectual, judged to have lost touch with black society.

Mr Chavis, 49, a civil rights activist who spent nearly five years in prison following a wrongful conviction for arson, moved with a vengeance to change things. He made overtures to rap groups, inner city gang-leaders and the radical Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. The policy boosted the NAACP's appeal to youth at the price of alienating the old guard. In his recent difficulties, few from within the organisation have defended Mr Chavis.

One difficulty is financial. Mr Chavis is accused of turning an NAACP operating surplus of dollars 600,000 ( pounds 400,000) when he took over into a potentially ruinous dollars 3m deficit, thanks to extravagances like a private limousine fleet, generous salary increases to more than 100 top NAACP staff and foreign junkets. Anxious NAACP contributors have withheld money, among them the Ford Foundation, which has frozen a dollars 250,000 grant decided in June.

The deadliest cut has been the lawsuit filed by his former aide, Mary Stansel. It accused Mr Chavis of breaching a private settlement of her complaints of sexual discrimination and wrongful dismissal from the job she briefly held at the NAACP after he became director.

The lawsuit claims Mr Chavis committed dollars 332,000 of NAACP money to pay off Ms Stansel. A sum of dollars 82,000 was forthcoming. But dollars 250,000 - the sum Mr Chavis supposedly promised to pay her if he could not find her a good job in the Washington area - was not. At which point she sued, adding that she was sexually harassed by Mr Chavis when they worked together.

Many NAACP board members are inclined to accept his denials. Ms Stansel is litigious even by American standards. In the last decade she has brought three questionable lawsuits, all resulting in out-of-court settlements. But they are outraged that Mr Chavis kept his dealings from them.

The director maintains he wanted to spare the NAACP adverse publicity and the cost of a court case. But for the substantial faction on the 64-member board which never supported him, the explanation does not suffice. 'His judgement is in question,' one board critic said. 'He was not being straight with people . . . we don't know what to expect next.'

Yesterday some civil rights leaders, including Mr Jackson, spoke out for Mr Chavis, claiming he was being victimised. But many powerful NAACP chapters from the South are demanding his resignation. The board chairman, William Gibson, has also muted his previous expressions of support.