Allegations detailed in a confidential NAACP report claim that Kweisi Mfume gave raises and promotions to women with whom he had close personal relationships while he was president of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.
The 22-page memorandum, prepared last summer by an outside lawyer, did not accept as true the claims lodged against Mfume by a female employee but determined that they could be "very difficult to defend persuasively" if she filed a lawsuit.
Mfume, 56, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, has denied the allegations. In an interview yesterday, he said the allegations in no way influenced his Nov. 30 announcement that he would leave the NAACP after nine years.
"I don't engage in inappropriate behavior," he said in the interview. "And if I did, I'm sure after nine years there, 10 years in the Congress and seven years on the [Baltimore] City Council, it would have been an issue long before your telephone call to me."
Disclosure of the report could prove sensitive for Mfume, who has ascended the political ranks in part on the basis of his compelling personal narrative. He overcame teenage years spent running in street gangs to become a five-term congressman and head the prominent civil rights organization.
The matter also could be delicate for the NAACP. Mfume took over the group from interim head Earl T. Shinhoster in 1996 when it was still reeling from the turbulent 16-month tenure of Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. Chavis was removed in 1994 after he agreed to secretly pay $332,400 in NAACP funds to settle claims of sexual discrimination by a female aide.
Members of the NAACP executive committee first saw the report detailing the allegations against Mfume at an October meeting in Washington, about a month before Mfume announced his decision to step down. The document has been a closely guarded secret -- one board member said the copies that were distributed were numbered and collected after the meeting. Most members reached this week declined to discuss it.
The document was intended as an assessment of the allegations as the organization's leaders evaluated how to handle the claims of the mid-level employee, Michele Speaks.
Speaks hired an attorney and asked for $140,000, two years' salary, in exchange for agreeing not to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or pursuing a lawsuit, according to the report. Speaks could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Kathleen Cahill, declined to comment.
The NAACP hired Marcia E. Goodman, a Chicago employment lawyer, to analyze Speaks's allegations. In the memo, Goodman concluded that some of Speaks's claims -- including an assertion that Mfume "touched her on the hip" -- largely amounted to a "he said-she said" dispute. But Goodman wrote that others were more problematic.
Speaks could mount a credible claim of workplace harassment because of "the impression [that was] created that a woman must provide sexual favors to Mr. Mfume or his associates in order to receive favorable treatment in the workplace," the lawyer wrote in the memo.
In an interview yesterday, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond would not say whether the organization's board ultimately decided to pay Speaks.
"Whenever an allegation of any sort that violates our personnel policies comes to our attention, we investigate, and if the allegation has merit, we take action," Bond said.
Asked whether the allegations played any role in Mfume's departure, Bond said, "That's a personnel matter that I cannot comment on."
When Mfume publicly announced his retirement, he told reporters that his abrupt departure was not the forced result of any scandal or squabble but a voluntary decision to spend more time with Christopher, his 15-year-old son.
"They tried to talk me out of it," Mfume said of board members.
Three months later, Mfume, who is divorced, stood with five of his six sons in a lounge overlooking Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore to launch his bid for the Senate seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) in early 2007.
In campaigns for Baltimore City Council and for Congress, the polished orator transformed a checkered past into an inspirational story of personal triumph that has been one of his strongest assets. Stumping in Bowie last week, he told a crowd of young Democrats, "Your values are what you're going to be tested on."
A separate memo shows that Mfume has faced questions about his romantic relationships with NAACP employees going back to 1998. In 1999, staff lawyers conducted an inquiry after two women got into a loud verbal altercation, allegedly over his attentions. One woman was disciplined; the other was promoted several months later, according to one document.
The altercation is described in a May 24, 1999, internal memo that lawyers for the NAACP wrote to Bond. "There appeared to be a widespread belief in the organization that President Mfume had displayed preferential treatment" to one of the women "based on a possible dating relationship," the memo says.
The lawyers then questioned whether Mfume "interfered with this inquiry by exerting improper influence on two key witnesses." Also, according to the memo, Mfume refused to answer questions in the inquiry.
Mfume acknowledged yesterday that he dated one of the women in that altercation, a female NAACP employee, for "three months" and later adopted her 4-year-old son. The boy is now 15, he said. The woman now works for the Maryland Department of Transportation.
"It was for a very brief moment," he said of the relationship. "And I fell in love with this kid who was fatherless and was very withdrawn. He's [become] an unbelievably impressive young man."
Mfume also said that he has never doled out raises or promotions within the NAACP to women with whom he reportedly had intimate relationships.
"No and no again," he said.
But Goodman's analysis in the 2004 memo said Speaks's claims could create the impression that Mfume approved raises and promotions to women who were his "paramours" or were involved romantically with one of his older sons. If those claims held up in court, Goodman wrote, they "would likely be damaging to the organization's reputation."
To bolster her analysis, Goodman details salary information for several women who worked at the NAACP's national headquarters in Baltimore and states that those rumored to have close relationships with Mfume, or with his son, have fared better than those who did not.
In Goodman's inquiry, Mfume was asked about the 10 allegations. According to the memo, Mfume said, "[T]here is not nor has there been any situation where female employees have been 'pitted against one another' to obtain raises or promotions."
Some board members offered an assessment of Mfume's performance in the job.
"He helped bring us through some very dark times," said one member, Gary Bledsoe, a lawyer from Austin.
Hazel N. Dukes, a board member from New York, agreed. "I'm dumbfounded that someone would give this around," she said of the memo. "Mr. Mfume served well at the NAACP."
The board, which is gathering today in Cambridge, Mass., is expected to discuss the selection of Mfume's successor.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.