By Matthew Mosk and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 30, 2005
The screaming match between Monica McCullough and Tiffany Hawthorne at the NAACP's national headquarters in Baltimore was getting out of hand when three co-workers tried to intervene.
But it was too late. McCullough had lunged over a colleague and struck Hawthorne in the face. The fight that ensued sent Hawthorne to Mercy Hospital's emergency room with swelling and bruises to her face and hands, according to her application for a protective order. The two women were granted restraining orders.
The Feb. 26, 2004, altercation, described in the court document, bolsters claims in an internal NAACP report made public this week that there was a poisonous atmosphere under Kweisi Mfume's watch at the nation's oldest civil rights organization.
Mfume, who stepped down as NAACP president in November and who has launched a Maryland campaign for U.S. Senate, has denied allegations in the memo that he gave preferential treatment to female employees he dated, causing unrest in the office. Mfume said he left behind an organization that was stronger and more healthy than when he arrived nine years earlier.
But the emergence of the document has made plain that his campaign for the Senate will open the book on Mfume's public and private life, including the former congressman's reign at the NAACP.
Top leaders of the civil rights organization, interviewed this week as they gathered at Harvard University for a board meeting, said they believe that the attention will work to Mfume's advantage.
"He was good at outreach, he's tremendously bright, he's good with people," said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who at times clashed with Mfume. "He made a wonderful ambassador for us."
But many said they believe the memo will offer a rare, candid glimpse inside an organization.
"It was an open secret that the place was just unprofessional," said Michael Meyers, who worked at the NAACP before Mfume became its president.
Meyers, who is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, said he has been told of "a general climate of favoritism and cronyism. People were backbiting, and jockeying for position based on who knew whom, who was close to Kweisi, who was close to his son."
The report was prepared for top NAACP officials last summer by Chicago labor lawyer Marcia E. Goodman, who was hired to assess the organization's legal liability involving claims of workplace discrimination by Michele Speaks, a midlevel employee in the development department.
In the memo, Goodman did not try to reach a firm conclusion about the veracity of Speaks's allegations, but she determined that several claims could be "very difficult to defend persuasively" if Speaks filed a lawsuit.
Taken together, the 10 allegations reviewed by Goodman portray the organization's national headquarters as the set of a soap opera, where romantic relationships, jealousy and betrayal were as much a part of daily life as fundraising, education and fighting prejudice.
According to the memo, Speaks described nine women employees as "paramours" of Mfume or his son, and she alleged that those women were rewarded with promotions and raises. Goodman analyzed their salaries and believed that several of the women identified by Speaks advanced faster, with higher pay, than others in the office.
"The allegations by Ms. Speaks would likely be considered by a court to be sufficient to put the organization on notice of a potential problem regarding the pervasive paramour relationships or personal favoritism" by Mfume, Goodman wrote.
Mfume, who is divorced, confirmed that he had a relationship with one woman named in the memo. Another woman, reached this week, denied she was involved with him. Two other women interviewed this week refused to comment about their personal lives.
Speaks contended that the Feb. 26, 2004, fistfight between the two women -- both in midlevel administration jobs -- was over Mfume's attentions. The two women had been promoted rapidly and given substantial raises before the fight occurred, the memo said. Neither McCullough nor Hawthorne returned messages seeking comments.
A few years earlier, Speaks alleged in the memo, two other women "argued loudly at the copy machine over the attentions" of Mfume. One of them, Mfume later told Goodman, was a woman with whom he had a brief romantic relationship, according to the memo.
In another episode recounted in the memo, Speaks alleged that Mfume gave favored treatment to Monica Newman, the NAACP development director, who was dating one of Mfume's older sons. One former NAACP employee interviewed this week said he had firsthand knowledge of that allegation.
"There is no doubt that Monica felt that her relationship with Mr. Mfume's son gave her some advantage in the office," said the former employee, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There were circumstances where she played that up to significant advantage."
Newman said yesterday that assertion was untrue and offensive and that she was saddened that her personal life had become fodder for a broader assault on Mfume.
"I really do think it's unfortunate," said Newman, who serves as a corporate consultant in Florida. "If it is an attempt to paralyze his campaign, it's just amazing to me. Because I think he was a good manager. He was a stellar manager."
In NAACP branch offices, release of the document has led to questions about what prompted Mfume's abrupt departure as head of the organization last fall -- specifically, whether it was voluntary, or came with a push from the 17-member executive committee.
The committee members reviewed the 22-page memo during a meeting at a Washington hotel, one month before Mfume announced he was stepping down.
J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, said he spoke recently with Mfume about his decision to leave the organization. "He said they wouldn't renew his contract, so he decided to leave," said Mondesire, an Mfume supporter. "He didn't go into detail about why."
Mfume said in an interview last night that Mondesire was mistaken. "He could have just not remembered. It wasn't a major conversation," he said. Mfume said that his contract was up and that the board wanted to negotiate new terms, but "I didn't want to go through another period of negotiation."
Mondesire said rumors that Mfume gave raises and promotions to women he was dating have floated around the organization's branches for years, but that Mfume "always denied them in public and privately."
Members of the board and top NAACP officials would not discuss the matter when asked whether the committee voted not to renew Mfume's contract, which was up in October. Interim President Dennis Hayes said: "Kweisi Mfume was not fired."
Bond and Hayes said they don't believe the episode will have a lasting impact on an organization with a 96-year history of fighting discrimination and hate -- or on Mfume.
"I think the public is smart enough to realize this matter has very little to do with the NAACP and more to do with the fact that Kweisi Mfume is running for a Senate seat," Hayes said.
Thompson reported from Cambridge. Staff writers Ovetta Wiggins, Ylan Mui, Allison Klein and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.