As the nation was mourning the deaths of civil rights icons Benjamin L. Hooks and Dorothy Irene Height, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization, was trying to resolve a nasty split in its leadership ranks that involves allegations of ethical and criminal misconduct.
Last week the splintered board of trustees of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was holding two separate meetings, one in Atlanta, where SCLC is headquartered, and another 211 miles to the west in Eutaw, Ala., the hometown of ousted treasurer Spiver Gordon.
The separate meetings were just another episode in a fierce – and embarrassing – battle to oust Gordon and Board Chairman Raleigh Trammell of Dayton, Ohio after they were accused of diverting at least $569,000 over the past four years from a SCLC account they controlled. The account was initially set up to cover SCLC-related expenses incurred by board members. Unlike other organization accounts, however, it was controlled by Trammell and Gordon and some board members were unaware of its existence.
A board finance committee investigation concluded that Trammell and Gordon used the special account without authorization to pay themselves, to pay relatives, to make personal loans, and to fund pet projects without the board’s knowledge or consent.
It is astounding to many that Trammell and Gordon, two ex-convicts, could rise to the top of the legendary civil rights organization. Trammell served time in prison in the 1970s for defrauding a county welfare agency in Ohio, where he worked as deputy director. Gordon had to give up his Eutaw City Council seat after he pleaded guilty in 1999 to federal fraud charges. He admitted that had directed a non-resident of Greene County, Ala., where Eutaw is located, to complete an absentee ballot and falsely claim a county address. As part of his guilty plea, Gordon was sentenced to six months in prison, ordered to serve three years of supervised probation and fined $2,000.
SCLC is noted for its tumultuous board meetings, dismissing one president after another in recent years, and Trammell and Gordon proved themselves as masterful tacticians – until now.
The FBI evidently began investigating SCLC last June after Florida State President Seville Brown filed embezzlement claims with the U.S. Justice Department. In connection with those allegations, Attorney General Eric Holder was provided 10 years of SCLC audits and IRS form 990. The board later initiated its own investigation.
According to a letter SCLC General Counsel Dexter M. Wimbish sent to Fulton County, Ga. District Attorney Paul Howard, dated January 29, 2010, the internal investigation revealed:
Trammel and Gordon approved expenditures for a prison ministry in Eutaw, headed by Gordon, that included false claims for reimbursement;
Gordon used the rubber signature stamp of a former SCLC board member without the member’s knowledge. Gordon continued to use the rubber stamp after the member had left the board;
Trammell authorized a personal loan to himself from the secret account; the money was wired to the board chairman in Dayton, Ohio;
Treasurer Gordon received duplicate reimbursements from the special account; Funds that were supposed to be deposited into the national operating and convention accounts were diverted to the special account controlled by Trammell and Gordon; without proper documentation, Gordon authorized the repayment of two loans to him totaling $50,000.
Trammell and Gordon circumvented internal fiscal controls in order to personally benefit from the special, unaudited account.
In a memo from General Counsel Wimbish to Board Chairman Raleigh Trammell and Interim President Byron Clay and copied to each board member, Wimbish wrote: “President Clay has indicated that Spiver Gordon stated the $1,500 a week was not for program expenses as relayed to staff, but it was for his compensation as Treasurer.”
The memo, marked privileged and confidential, continued, “The General Counsel is not aware of any instance where the Board of Directors has voted to authorize compensation to any officer of the Board other than the President/CEO. Therefore, if indeed the expenditures were not for program expenses as indicated previously, a larger legal issue shall arise.”
The full board was made aware of the special fund last October 29. On November 12, two weeks later, Trammell called an executive committee meeting and a motion was made to temporarily close the national office, which housed Attorney Wimbish and Executive Director Ron Woods, two staffers who had urged the board to close the questionable bank account. Former SCLC President Charles Steele, Jr. had also urged Trammell to close the account.
Twenty-three board members – some of them brought on with the appointment of Byron Clay as interim president – voted on October 30 to suspend the two officers, pending further investigation. A planned ratification on the action was scheduled for November 29, but it did not go forward after Trammell and Gordon agreed to step aside and not interfere with the inquiry.
Subsequent findings led General Counsel Wimbish to recommend bringing 12 charges against the pair and turning evidence over to prosecuting authorities.
When contacted for comment, Wimbish declined to be interviewed, referring all questions to Bernard Lafayette, a long-time board member and national spokesman for SCLC.
However, several board members shared Wimbish’s 3-page memo, dated December 15, 2009, with this reporter. He cited the following actions as possibly being illegal:
Gordon had been receiving $1,500 a week in unauthorized program expenses for the Greene County SCLC chapter; Without board authorization, Gordon paid his wife, Barbara, $500 a month to maintain SCLC financial records; Gordon has received unauthorized reimbursements for a prison ministry program in Greene County, Ala.; Trammell received unauthorized personal loans from the SCLC board account for him and others; Trammell received unauthorized funds that were made payable to him directly or the Dayton SCLC chapter over which he presides; Trammell refused to inform the board of directors that both the organization’s CPA and general counsel had recommended closing the unaudited account from which he and Gordon regularly withdrew funds.
After Trammell and Gordon refused to cooperate with the internal SCLC investigation, Wimbish filed complaints with Georgia and Alabama prosecutors requesting them to investigate potential embezzlement by the two former board officers.
On January 18, 2010, the nation celebrated Dr. King’s birthday. On the following day, board allies of Trammell filed a petition in Atlanta, seeking to restore the former chairman and treasurer to office. Charles Mathis, the attorney representing the members who voted to suspend them, filed two petitions, still pending, that would permanently remove Trammell and Gordon and prevent them from claiming to represent SCLC.
Later, the Trammell allies withdrew their action and General Counsel Wimbish, Executive Director Ron Woods and several other staffers have returned to their offices in the national headquarters building on Auburn Avenue.
Trammell’s troubles were compounded when FBI agents raided his office and home in Dayton on February 11 as well as the home of one of his daughters, Angela Goodwin. Agents removed boxes of material and computers from the buildings. So far, no charges have been filed against Trammell or his daughter.
In addition to the FBI raid, which is believed to be connected with charges that Trammell and Gordon diverted more than $500,000 from the special SCLC bank account, Ohio authorities are looking into allegations that two other groups affiliated with Trammell may have fraudulently received federal and state funds.
Trammell, also president of the Dayton SCLC branch, contended the grou
p operated a domestic violence shelter. It received funds last year even though it was closed at least part of 2009, Ohio officials said. Trammell was also affiliated with a food pantry partly funded by FEMA. It, too, is under investigation.
A grand jury has been convened to investigate the various charges and is expected to return indictments soon.
In addition to Trammell’s various legal problems, a longtime former assistant, based in Dayton, filed a sexual harassment complaint against her ex-boss with the state human rights agency. She claims to have sexually-explicit videos of Trammell, a married minister.
Those problems notwithstanding, Trammell and Gordon were huddled in Eutaw two weeks ago, claiming to represent the legitimate SCLC board of directors. Although not authorized to do so by the organization’s constitution, Trammell moved to replace 14 board members with new appointees. It was considered a questionable move because the board chair is only allowed to appoint members to fill unexpired terms.
“They continue to contest our legitimacy,” said SCLC spokesman Lafayette, representing the views of the board members that include Martin Luther King, III. “They went ahead with their own group of folks who followed them. I believe the judge will probably want reconciliation. But at this point, they have not given us any reason to reconcile with them.”
Any remaining questions about which group is in charge are expected to be answered by August, when SCLC holds its national convention. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the slain civil rights leader, is expected to begin serving as president of her father’s old organization. King was elected president over Trammell’s objection last October 29, but amid the internal strife, she has not assumed office.
Asked why Trammell would try to hold on to his position in SCLC while facing so many legal challenges, one board member said: “I don’t think it’s about the money anymore. He’s trying to stay out of jail. He thinks that being chairman of SCLC affords him a certain amount of protection. Without it, they [prosecutors] are more likely to move in quickly on him. The only way this dispute is going to end is when Trammell and Spiver are in handcuffs.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at twitter.com/currygeorge.