Worker Benefits?

Houston's NAACP faces a protest of its own when it takes sides in a divorce case

Funding comes from the interest payments generated by trust accounts set up in civil cases, and from fees of $2 to $25 added to the filing costs for lawsuits. This year, that totals about $2.6 million dispensed by the foundation to various organizations.

Richard L. Tate, a Richmond attorney who is board chairman for the state foundation, explains that regular reports from grant recipients and audits are used to ensure that the funds are spent properly.

"We have one of the tightest and most highly regarded audit procedures of any state in the country," Tate says. "We follow those strictly."

Officials of the Houston chapter of the NAACP refused to discuss the Avendano case. "The NAACP believes in fighting for people of all colors," says executive director Yolanda Smith.

Love accuses Avendano's counsel, NAACP staff attorney Allecia Lindsey, of regularly using the organization's name to intimidate police officers, witnesses and others in the case.

As the arguments increased, chapter president Fran Gentry sent a letter on November 11 to its regional headquarters. The executive committee decided to end its involvement in the case, and to find other free -- pro bono -- counsel for Avendano.

"It was further determined that providing legal representation to disenfranchised minority citizens is a civil rights issue and follows the mandate of the Association's purpose, and we must comply with the requirements of the funding agencies of our legal program," the letter stated. "However, we understand that extreme extenuating circumstances require substitute legal counsel be identified." Gentry would not clarify those remarks.

What troubles Love the most, she says, is that this wasn't merely a stranger showing up at the clinic's door, begging for aid. She says Avendano has worked on various NAACP projects: improvements to its headquarters and the establishment of a tech center in a parking lot across from the Sears store on Main. "I know that, because I'd drop him off there during his work on those projects," she says. And Love insists that he's also a popular handyman and carpenter for various employees of the organization.

She argues that the group was tapping into its legal aid services as more of a work benefit for its contractors, a sort of legal insurance perk. Gentry and several board members denied employing or even knowing Avendano.

Hearing that, Love produced a copy of an invoice that indicates Avendano performed work at one employee's home. When the Houston Press phoned the NAACP office to ask that employee about the invoice, the call was routed instead to an angry Lindsey, who refused to even confirm the worker's position.

"His relationship with the NAACP was so tight," Love says. "After he was burned last year, they sent him a note and flowers."

In responding to a grievance filed by Love, Lindsey told the State Bar of Texas she's not aware of her client doing NAACP work, and that the case was handled in an appropriate manner for an eligible client. "I believed my client to be in fear of his life, as he represented," she wrote.

Love finally gained an order returning her house to her in late September. More time was spent in state District Judge Doug Warne's family court in an effort to order Avendano to sign over the check to the home repair company and stop impeding the repairs.

In the rival divorce petitions, each side seeks to have the other pay for attorney costs. As for Love, she's already paid several thousand dollars for a lawyer, private investigator and other expenses to respond to legal actions brought by the NAACP attorney. She points to her still unpainted walls and blackened crevices in the hardwood floors from the fire.

Her desktop publishing business crashed when her computer was damaged by the blaze, and she's also waiting on repairs before restarting her meat-distribution business.

"That man didn't lose anything from his carpentry business," she says. "I lost my entire business, but they made the decision to give him the financial help.

"The NAACP has really stretched me out," Love concludes. "With that unlimited resource, he can just keep pounding me and pounding me."

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