Lavell Merritt, Montgomery County's minority purchasing officer, said he wanted to strike a blow for black unity late last year when he launched the Leadership Assembly, a coalition of black business and community leaders joined in a collective show of economic muscle in the county.
Now Merritt, facing charges of ethics violations before the county's Ethics Commission, has caused a deep division among the county's black leaders, who are either publicly rallying to his defense or privately disavowing him. The case has posed a thorny dilemma for many blacks who want to rally behind one of their own but don't want to appear to be leaping to Merritt's defense just because he is black.
The case, meanwhile, has focused sharp negative publicity on Montgomery's black leadership, exposing all of the rivalries and contrasting styles, precisely when blacks had hoped to forge a united front.
That's the bad thing," said the Rev. Rufus Settles, president of the Black Ministers Conference, referring to the negative publicity. "We just don't need that."
Said John W. Diggs, president of the Alpha black fraternity: "The black community in Montgomery County has been very united. This particular case is a cause of concern because it tends to be tearing up the black community's unanimity."
The Ethics Commission told Merritt May 18 that its initial investigation found "a reasonable basis" for believing he violated county ethics laws. Among the five allegations listed are charges that Merritt used county stationery and his official position when he wrote the embassy of the People's Republic of China asking for a $1 billion line of credit to help black businesses.
The commission also told Merritt he may have acted improperly by asking firms that contract with the county to buy tickets to his May fashion show, which was supposed to benefit Howard University.
The Montgomery chapter of the NAACP formally declined to take a position on Merritt's case, saying only that due process should be preserved and the position of minority purchasing officer kept strong.
But NAACP president Nix and other black leaders said they were shocked last Thursday when the Montgomery Sentinel newspaper quoted several unnamed NAACP executive board members criticizing Merritt.
To his detractors, who usually prefer to speak off the record to reporters, Merritt did not show the requisite discretion for a public official and has embarrassed the black community by his outspokenness. "Black leaders would be causing themselves a grave injustice if they stand behind him just because he is black," said one.
His supporters, including Settles, who is president of the Black Ministers Conference, and public-relations consultant John Raye, say they think Merritt may have come under attack for his role in setting up the Leadership Assembly and for his aggressive, often abrasive style.
Merritt's supporters speak in terms reminiscent of the "conspiracy theory" espoused by some District of Columbia politicians--a theory that the "white establishment" will try to discredit strong and aggressive black political spokesmen. In the District, the most recent examples of this victimization-by-the-white-establishment theme are former Human Service Department director Joseph C. Yeldell, who was tried and later acquitted of conspiracy charges in an alleged city leasing scandal, and D.C. City Council member H.R. Crawford, who was fired from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after seeking consulting contracts with housing authorities that received HUD money.
Merritt, in that sense, has become Montgomery's Joe Yeldell, and Montgomery blacks talk openly of a white "plan" to discredit Merritt for a style similar to that of Crawford and Yeldell.
"Mr. Merritt is a military man and a very aggressive man," said Raye, who was a cofounder of the assembly with Merritt. "Any black man who is aggressive and authoritative and has the audacity to try to effect change stands the chance of facing severe repercussions, and that goes from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X all the way to Mr. Stokes having his troubles now."
Raye was referring to Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), the veteran black congressman who was stopped in his car by Montgomery police who say he failed three roadside sobriety tests. Stokes has denied he was drunk and said he is only being prosecuted because he is black.
"If Mr. Merritt had not been instrumental in forming the assembly," Raye said, "we would not have these charges surfacing now." Raye and others also said the charges against Merritt are reopening and exploiting the conflicts over style that have existed in the black community for generations.
Merritt's June 2 hearing was postponed while he hired a lawyer. Settles had planned a "prayer-in" in the executive office building in Rockville for the day of the hearing.
Meanwhile, Raye announced plans to merge the Leadership Assembly with the Black Coalition in July, trying to keep the newer organization afloat through this adversity.
"The assembly is much bigger than this," he said.