Black mayors’ group in turmoil over mystery purchases

Several members of the Atlanta-based National Conference of Black Mayors are seeking the resignation of its executive director, Vanessa Williams, suggesting that she spent more than $600,000 of the group’s money on personal items at stores such as Tiffany and Saks.

On Wednesday, a Fulton County Superior Court judge threatened to jail Williams for repeatedly failing to supply financial documents requested by the organization’s president, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. He filed a lawsuit, seeking to compel her to produce those records.

Ultimately, Judge Christopher S. Brasher did not declare Williams in contempt of court. He did appoint an independent auditor to sift through years of the group’s finances, and he issued a temporary injunction forbidding anyone to destroy relevant documents.

Brasher said he will put the task of auditing the NCBM in the hands of GlassRatner, an accounting firm that inspected the NCBM’s bank records at Johnson’s request.

“We are pleased the judge decided to appoint an auditor, and we welcome the opportunity for that exercise to happen,” said Richard Summers, one of Williams’ attorneys. “We are not pleased that it is the same auditor.”

Williams testified for about two hours Wednesday, claiming that she has turned over some of the documents and would never intentionally defy a court order.

“This has killed the momentum of this organization. This is all I have been doing,” Williams said. “I am up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at 3 a.m. trying to comply with this order and keep this organization from shutting down.”

BJay Pak, an attorney representing NCBM, said Williams brought the judge’s wrath on herself.

“She just admitted that she didn’t turn over everything that was required,” Pak said.

According to GlassRatner, NCBM bank records show that from January 2010 through June 2013 the organization spent $623,000 on women’s apparel, cosmetics, personal grooming, toys, sporting tickets, a youth baseball league and direct cash payments to Williams and her husband. Purchases came from high-end shops such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., Cole Hahn and Louis Vuitton, as well as Toys ‘R’ Us and StubHub, a ticket broker.

Records also indicate that NCBM paid for tuition at a private Christian school. On one day in August, 2012, someone made 13 cash withdrawals totaling $3,600 at Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans.

On Aug. 23, after the release of the preliminary audit, 21 mayors signed a petition demanding Williams’ resignation.

“Over the past several months, it has come to the board’s attention that you have mismanaged the finances and business affairs of the NCBM and have brought considerable embarrassment to the reputation of the NCBM as an organization,” the board wrote in a letter to Williams. “ … in order to move the organization in a positive direction, restore its noble reputation and preserve its core missions, we must appoint new leadership.”

But the board is split; a faction that supports Williams is claiming that Johnson’s election was improperly conducted and he is not the rightful president.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was not among those who signed the petition.

Reed is in Washington for a meeting with President Obama; his spokeswoman said Wednesday that he would not comment on the lawsuit. She added that although Reed hosted a reception for the group last year, when its annual meeting was in Atlanta, he is not an active member.

The 39-year-old NCBM has suffered a string of setbacks in recent years. It is deep in debt, and a year ago a former president, George L. Grace Sr., was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for racketeering, bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud. Those charges arose from his conduct as mayor of St. Gabriel, La.

The outlays now under scrutiny came at the same time that the organization was bouncing checks and failing to pay vendors and hotels all over the country.

This week, Jeff Dickerson, a spokesman for NCBM, said because of its unresolved financial issues, the organization “had a number of default judgments outstanding, had recently lost its tax-exempt status with the IRS, and was unable to focus on its core mission.”

As the pressure on her mounted this spring, Williams’ office issued a news release blaming the organization’s financial troubles on Grace and casting herself as its guardian and savior.

“In the wake of Mayor Grace’s illegal activities … the National Conference of Black Mayors has completely revamped its financial reporting system,” the release said. “This organization would not have been able to recover … without the exceptionally talented and loyal Executive Director and CEO Vanessa R. Williams …”

The NCBM represents more than 650 African American Mayors across the United States. In addition to Reed, local members include mayors Mario Avery of Fairburn and Ernestine Pittman of East Point.

“I am in full support of Mayor Johnson’s effort to restore the credibility and respectability of this organization,” Avery said. “All mayors nationwide should expect accountability and sound financial reporting at all costs. The NCBM is expected to operate with the same level of excellence.”

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