In Sumter County, Ala., a 64-year-old woman who received support from a cooperative association to start a greenhouse, to get a head start on her crops, to get a jump on economic self-sufficiency, is scared. The FBI has been around asking her questions about her cooperative.
In Washington last night, about 200 people with that woman's story on their minds go together for a reception at Howard University and plunked down $15 each toward the legal defense coffers of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The federation, which provides aid to 300,000 people in 14 states, has been the subject of a 15-month investigation, conducted by the Justice Department and the FBI, for alleged misuse of federal funds. Because no indictments have been issued in that time, Urban League president Vernon Jordan, Georgia State Sen. Julian Bond, National Urban Coalition president M. Carl Holman, Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Calif.) and Washington Mayor Marion Barry, among others, are calling the investigation harassment.
"Why am I here? It's simple," Jordan told the audience. "I am here because today it's Charlie Prejean, tomorrow it could be Vernon Jordan. Today it's the federation, tomorrow it could be Howard University. None of us is immune from the ravages of racism."
Washington was chosen as the site of the support committee of the 40-member coalition's first fund-raiser, explained Prejean, the director of the Alabama-based federation, to draw attention to the "abusive use of institutional power." As he greeted old allies from other rural poverty groups, Prejean explained, "This is an attack on the part of racists who are uncomfortable with the changing social patterns in the South. We have grown not only in political power, but in economic power." The investigation, according to news reports reviewed in a chronology last night prepared by the federation, started in 1979 when Rep. Richard Shelby (D-Ala.) asked the General Accounting Office to audit the federation. The GAO found no basis for a full-scale investigation. After that, the FBI subpoenaed the records of the federation and began to interview the program's participants. Besides the general fear created by the probe, Prejean said the federation's funding has been put on hold by private foundations and government agencies.
"We believe this is part of a pattern to put community-based organizations out of business," said Dymally, who, while California's lieutenant governor, underwent a similar investigation. Today the Congressional Caucus plans to send a letter to Attorney General William French Smith asking that the findings be made public or the investigation dropped. Observed Julian Bond: "It's ironic with an administration where they profess to believe in people helping themselves, that they should be trying to put the federation out of business."
Jordan reminded the audience that "this took place before Jan. 20, when we had friends in high office."
This investigation, coupled with the announced cutbacks of federal programs that served as a lifeline to the smaller groups, has made some of the federation's allies nervous. "We are waiting," said Pablo Eisenberg, of the Center for Community Change. "Usually the pattern in the past is if one group gets an audit, the others follow. We can't allow the disintegration of the federation."