The Atlanta branch of the NAACP has accused its former executive director and her assistant of stealing more than a quarter-million dollars to pay for medical services, furniture and college tuition.
In a police report filed Oct. 10, chapter leaders say that over a six-year period, Judith Withers-Hanson and Saundra Douglass, her administrative assistant, stole $275,000 from an organization that operates annually on a $400,000 budget.
Repeated calls to numbers listed for Withers-Hanson and Douglass were not returned.
According to the report, filed by former chapter president Lonnie King and board member Louise Hornsby, the two women fraudulently applied for American Express cards and wrote checks to pay for personal items.
“Over the period of six years, Withers-Hanson and Douglass used the cards for personal expenses, paid the bills using checks belonging to the association, and covered the usage by making false entries into the association’s accounting records,” the incident report read. “Some of the expenses paid involved personal dental work for associates, college tuition, expensive meals, and furniture purchases not for use by the association.”
“It is a lot of money, that is why we are concerned about it,” Hornsby said. “Especially when we are handing the public’s money.”
Hornsby, a former Atlanta city judge and prosecutor, said the branch is still investigating the theft and waiting to hear back from Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. The Atlanta Police Department confirmed that it is investigating the incident.
The Rev. R.L. White, the president of the Atlanta chapter, said everyone in the organization was shocked when the fraud was discovered.
“I didn’t want to believe it. Judy is a fine lady,” said White, who said he has been chapter president for about 10 years. “You can’t interact with someone that long without caring about them. But I don’t know how all this came to be.”
White said Withers-Hanson came to the branch in 1998, succeeding former executive director Jondelle Johnson.
In 2002, after someone broke into the NAACP’s offices and stole toys that the organization had collected to give to children, Withers-Hanson soberly summed up the pain of the branch losing anything it had worked hard to get.
"We are an organization that has been in business for 93 years to help people," Withers-Hanson said at the time. “For someone to break in and take what little resources we had is disheartening."
White said in January, when a new board was elected, the new treasurer, Richard Rose, conducted a routine audit of the branch’s books.
“When he was going over the books, he found the discrepancies,” said White, adding that auditors are still sifting through records and trying to find things because of a “lack of record.”
“It is hard to nail down when all of this started,” White said. “Or how much money is really missing, because we have not been able to find all of our records.”
White said the national NAACP was notified of the findings and Withers-Hanson was suspended in February. Desmond Ables was installed as interim executive director.
“We just want to handle it the best way we can,” White said. “We are waiting for the national office to advise us.”
National NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and board chairman Julian Bond would not comment on a local matter. A national spokesperson for the organization said they would wait until the legal process took its course.
Daryl Graham, a spokesman for the state branch of the NAACP confirmed that national is investigating the charges. But the revelation that someone might have stolen $275,000 from the organization could not have come at a worse time.
Under the national direction of Jealous, who at 35 was elected the organization’s youngest president in late 2008, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.
One of the centerpieces of the celebration was obviously fund-raising.
“The fund-raising takes a stab when something like this gets out. We don’t want the public to think that we are careless of their funds,” White said. “We’ve had to put more safeguards in place so that these things would not happen again.”
White added that the alleged theft has left the branch in a financial bind.
“We have some financial struggles now,” White said. “But we are trying to do the best we can. Anytime something like this is discovered, it will have an impact, but the board is dedicated to bringing to the public the kind of NAACP we have come to expect in the last 100 years.”
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