Like most officials of nonprofit groups, the executive committee members of the Houston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People don't like surprises. Thanks to chapter president Luckett Johnson and his wife, TSU professor Marcia, that seems to be all they've been getting lately.
The executive committee is scheduled to meet in an emergency session this week, and Dr. Johnson's six-month tenure as president may hang in the balance. According to dissidents, the doctor has a penchant for doing things his own way, without telling anyone about it.
"I'm just baffled because I've been on the board over 20 years and I've been totally unaware of the way things have moved," says City Councilwoman Carol Galloway, who has not yet decided whether to call for the president's resignation.
Another committee member is less diplomatic.
"This is Enron with a black twist to it. Instead of the crooked E, we got the crooked NAACP."
The Johnsons insist they are receiving no financial benefit from their activities with the NAACP, and that there is no conflict of interest in their multiple involvements with grant-funded projects. Mrs. Johnson is also the acting special counsel for the local chapter.
As reported in The Insider last week, Johnson recently launched a nonprofit foundation called C.A.T.C.H. to seek a share of the food and beverage investment deal at the downtown arena. The opportunity was created by a lawsuit against the Houston Rockets by minority organizations. His wife is on the board of C.A.T.C.H., along with three other TSU professors. While other NAACP-sponsored investors had to pay a $3,000 review fee to a law firm, Johnson's group got in gratis. According to a source, C.A.T.C.H. got the highest rating of the five nominees submitted to the Rockets.
And that isn't the only organization project where the Johnsons have dual involvement.
Last month the general counsel of the national NAACP dropped a bombshell on local executive director Yolanda Smith. Attorney Dennis Courtland Hayes informed her by letter that the national office would not approve the start of a Justice Initiative partnering the Houston NAACP and Texas Southern University's Earl Carl Institute for Trial Advocacy. The institute is a research and writing think tank directed by Marcia Johnson for law students at Thurgood Marshall School of Law. It is housed rent-free in a building on Fannin leased by the NAACP from Rice University.
The missive came two days after the philanthropic Houston Endowment foundation board had approved a grant of $400,000 for the Justice Initiative, with $200,000 to be paid out later this month. According to Hayes, the partnership between the local NAACP and TSU runs afoul of a number of organization guidelines. He claimed the proposal would frustrate the association's policy of speaking with one voice and would involve issues beyond the group's civil rights mandate.
"Practically speaking," wrote Hayes, "the Association does not have adequate controls, policies, and procedures in place to provide sufficient oversight for such an initiative." Although it's not mentioned in the letter, an NAACP source attributes part of the concern by national officials to the involvement of the local president's wife.
Smith says the action of the national office is arbitrary and unfair, since the proposal had been rewritten to address some of the issues raised by Hayes.
"Every time we've got an issue we can't get [NAACP national president] Kweisi Mfume or Dennis Hayes to fly down here. We have to handle things locally."
Marcia Johnson concurs. She claims that each of Hayes's objections has been addressed, and "all of the areas we were talking about are civil rights issues: disparities in education and the justice system, juvenile justice and equal access to public facilities, racial profiling."
She also dismisses any suggestion of conflict or impropriety in the roles of the Johnsons in the matter.
"There is no personal remuneration," she says. "I just presumed it was volunteering to do what I thought was a good thing."
In an attempt to avoid losing the grant, Luckett Johnson and other local officials are seeking a meeting with national NAACP officials. In the meantime, at a meeting two weeks ago they tried to get the board to create a bank account where the foundation money could be parked until they figured out a way to get the national organization to approve the venture. Galloway and fellow directors Darryl Carter and Jarvis Hollingsworth immediately began protesting.
"You go to the bank to negotiate an escrow account, you have to represent to the bank you have the authority for that money," says Carter. "As a member of the board, I was concerned about it because I know Houston Endowment will sue our ass." Galloway warned that such actions could get the local chapter's charter revoked by the national NAACP. After heated discussion, the motion was voted down.
Houston Endowment officials expressed concern when The Insider faxed them a copy of Hayes's letter ordering the local chapter not to go forward with the project.
"In general terms, we are not pleased when any grant seeker doesn't tell us something that's very significant to the grant," says Don Nelson, Houston Endowment vice president in charge of grants. "You may get a little money now because you weren't up front with us, but you may have shot yourself in the foot for another grant."
According to Nelson, the local NAACP has not yet signed an acceptance contract for the grant and will not receive any of the funds until the dispute with its national officials is resolved.
Endowment grants officer Donald Sheppard says Dr. Johnson called him last week for advice on whether the grant could be placed in an escrow account. Sheppard told him the idea wouldn't work "because we are an endowment and whatever interest they would raise would be limited compared to keeping the money ourselves."
Johnson gives a different account of the conversation. "We talked and they said, 'If you accept the money you can always return the money. If we put it in escrow where it's not spent, nobody can have access to it until this thing is settled.' "
Sheppard has known Marcia Johnson for years but says he was unaware that she was married to the NAACP leader until after the grant application was filed. Nelson notes that family connections are common in the nonprofit world.
"When those things come up, obviously we become more suspicious and would take a harder look at it. But I would daresay there are many of our grants that are made where relatives may be working on a project and we just have to make a judgment call whether it sounds like the relative has the credentials to do the job."
According to Johnson, his wife and her institute were involved with the NAACP before he became president, and "I didn't think it would be worthwhile to have her step down just because I'm president."
He points out that he's donated $8,000 to the organization in the last year, while other board members gave very little. Then he took a verbal swing at some of his accusers.
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"These board members that say we're trying to put some money in our pockets, they are not looking at the picture. We are not trying to put a dime in our pockets. We are putting [it] back into the NAACP."
On the other hand, Johnson blasts two board members who applied for investment positions in the arena deal, while explaining his own C.A.T.C.H. foundation is a nonprofit that would use the revenue for community purposes.
"They're supposed to serve because they're trying to help people. But these are individuals that are trying to put money in their own pockets. That is where the problem is."
However the dispute turns out, maybe they should consider changing the name of the Houston chapter to the National Association for the Advancement of Conniving People.