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NAACP asks Lyons to leave its board

By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY

©St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 1997


NAACP leaders on Monday called for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons and three others accused of financial misdeeds to resign from the organization's national board.

NAACP chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, who made the announcement after a vote of the group's executive committee, said she feared board members' improprieties could harm the reputation of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights group.

"We want them to resign because the reputation of the NAACP is at stake," Evers-Williams said. "This was a serious matter, and it has to be handled swiftly. Far too many people have suffered for the organization to allow it to be tainted by scandal."

It was the first move by a national organization to disassociate itself from Lyons, plagued for months by allegations of personal and financial misconduct.

Late Monday, Lyons' attorney said Lyons already has stepped down from the 64-member board which sets policy for the NAACP. The attorney cited reasons other than Evers-Williams' request.

Attorney Grady Irvin blamed Lyons' "heavy travel schedule" and his need "to devote more time as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church" in St. Petersburg. He also cited Lyons' duties as president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

Irvin said Lyons submitted his written resignation to NAACP president Kweisi Mfume and Evers-Williams last week.

"Although Dr. Lyons has resigned from the board, he will continue to support the worthwhile endeavors of this historic civil rights institution," Irvin wrote in a news release.

Lyons had not received "any written notification, or the like, from the NAACP" calling for him or the others to step down, the release said. In an interview, Irvin would not elaborate on whether Lyons' resignation was prompted by the executive committee's action. Irvin also would not release Lyons' letter of resignation or say on what day last week he had quit.

The decision to oust Lyons and the other board members was made during a conference call Friday night by the NAACP's executive committee, USA Today reported Monday. The executive committee voted 12-2 to seek the resignations or initiate removal proceedings if any refused to step down, the paper reported.

"It's the overwhelming appearance of impropriety that has the majority of the board members concerned," Leon Russell, president of the Florida NAACP branch, said of Lyons' ouster. Russell said he supported the executive committee's decision.

Lyons had been serving his first three-year term on the NAACP's national board, Russell said. His term was to expire in February 1999. Lyons was elected to the unpaid position by the rest of the board. He filled a seat traditionally held by the leader of the National Baptist Convention.

But Russell said Lyons' involvement in the NAACP had been minimal. "He has not attended one board meeting since he was elected," Russell said, adding that the board meets four times a year. "It's not common at all (for board members to skip so many meetings)."

Lyons is facing criminal investigations over his handling of National Baptist Convention finances. Among the revelations: secret bank accounts, lavish purchases and forged documents.

The NAACP has been trying to repair its reputation since 1994, when the board fired executive director Benjamin Chavis after learning he diverted $80,000 from NAACP accounts to settle a sexual harassment complaint.

Monday's announcement came after weeks of internal debate following a new series of embarrassing disclosures. Some board members had threatened to resign if Evers-Williams didn't act.

In addition to Lyons, those asked to resign were:

Hazel Dukes, a close aide to Evers-Williams and president of New York City's Off-Track Betting Corp., who pleaded guilty last month to attempted grand larceny. She admitted that she took $13,201 from a leukemia-stricken OTB employee who had trusted Dukes to help pay her bills. The NAACP also will investigate the finances of the New York state NAACP chapter, which Dukes heads, Evers-Williams said.

James E. Ghee, a Virginia lawyer and another Evers-Williams supporter, who pleaded guilty in May 1996 to embezzling more than $38,000 from a client's trust fund. He was disbarred for five years and given six months in jail. Ghee and Dukes were leaders of a reform movement that pledged to clean up the NAACP. They accused former chairman Bill Gibson of financial wrongdoing and signed a code of ethics pledging NAACP board members to "a personal commitment to integrity in all circumstances."

Bobby Bivens, a Stockton, Calif., resident who was arrested Oct. 6 on charges that he owed $20,000 in child support.

On Monday, Evers-Williams said she had hoped to contact the four board members before announcing the action reached by the group's executive committee on Friday.

A member of the committee leaked details of the vote to the news media, however, so Evers-Williams said she felt compelled to confirm that their resignations would be sought.

"I haven't even been able to tell them we want their resignations," Evers-Williams said. "I'm livid that members of our committee couldn't keep this matter private until the proper time as they had promised."

The committee also voted to strengthen the NAACP's code of ethics, Evers-Williams said.
-- Information from the Associated Press and Baltimore Sun was included in this report.


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