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AKA Lawsuit Reveals Longtime Internal Conflicts

For an organization with a code of silence rivaled only by police departments, a 38-page lawsuit filed by eight members of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority against its president and board of directors is unusual enough.

But add public allegations of misuse of funds for lingerie and jewelry and top it off with the creation of a wax sculpture in the president’s likeness paid for by sorority members – during a recession – and you have the makings of an international news story and fodder for gossip blogs.

From the U.S. to Great Britain and India, media outlets and blogs have reported the conflict, mainly about the statue that is on display in the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. The lawsuit claims, among other things, the wax replica of AKA president Barbara McKinzie cost $900,000, a much-disputed figure.

As plaintiffs and their attorneys prepare to hold a meeting in Philadelphia next week to give members an update on the case, an examination of the various letters and court documents reveal a conflict between McKinzie and other members over finances and rules going back years before her election as president. The lawsuit filed in June is just the latest in a series of legal clashes between McKinzie and some of the members.

The dispute is chronicled in court papers and on the Friends of the Weeping Ivy Web site, which has become a vehicle for interested members to discuss and provide financial support to the lawsuit. There, plaintiffs have announced an August 22 meeting, not sanctioned by the sorority, in Philadelphia where attorneys and plaintiffs in the lawsuit plan to answer questions about the case.

Plaintiffs contend that McKinzie has run up nearly $400,000 in personal expenses since her induction in 2006 —  in addition to her $250,000 salary — and that she is slated to receive a $192,000 pension over four years after her term ends in 2010. All of these expenditures, according to the lawsuit, had the board’s approval but were not brought before the membership. And that’s just the tip of this messy iceberg.

McKinzie shot off a response to the media saying she was being targeted because she has attempted to “professionalize” the organization.

“Change never comes easy,” McKinzie said in the written statement. “The malicious allegations leveled against AKA by former leaders are based on mischaracterizations and fabrications not befitting our ideals of sisterhood, ethics and service. The most outlandish misrepresentation is the so-called $900,000 wax figure of me.”

Melody McDowell, the organization’s chief information officer, said $900,000 allocated by the AKA Board of Directors to help defray overall expenses for the group’s 2010 convention includes the cost of moving and re-mounting the interactive wax exhibit from Baltimore to the convention site in St. Louis, Mo.

According to the president’s written response, two wax figures were commissioned for a total of $45,000. One statue was of herself and the other was of the first president of the 101-year-old organization, Nellie Quander.

Although McKinzie began her four-year term in 2006 with strong support, a contingent of former leaders was opposed to her sweeping plans, as court documents reveal. The details of the civil complaint and the entire imbroglio reveal a hostile struggle within the venerable organization, and high-stakes financial dealings that involve millions of dollars obtained mainly from the membership. AKA currently has “a budget of nearly $14 million and is comprised of more than 260,000 members in more than 950 chapters worldwide,” according to McKinzie’s statement.

McKinzie seems to be raising the national profile of the organization. The 2008 centennial membership convention, or Boulé, was held in Washington, D.C., where a dinner was served to 16,206 people, according to the organization’s newsletter. Guinness World Records was called in and declared it the largest silver service, sit-down event of its kind on record. The organization also has garnered publicity under McKinzie’s leadership for a partnership with Mattel Corp. that resulted in a limited edition AKA Barbie. Leaders of the organization also rang the opening bell of the Nasdaq stock exchange on April 1 that year.

President Barack Obama invited McKinzie to the White House for the signing of the economic recovery bill, a fact noted on the AKA’s official Web site. The sorority also announced that Michelle Obama has accepted an honorary membership although she has not yet been inducted.

But these achievements did not impress all members of the organization. One member, who graduated from college within the last five years, says many younger sorors couldn’t afford the convention’s $500 registration fee, and others complained that Barbie dolls may not have been the best representation for an organization of service-oriented Black women.

The “comments” section of the Friends’ Web site indicates that dissatisfaction has been brewing among members for some time and culminated in the latest litigation.

Among the lawsuit’s claims, which spokesperson McDowell called “tabloid-ish,” is the charge McKinzie used the organization’s American Express Card for personal purchases, then cashed in the reward points to buy a 46-inch HDTV and gym equipment for her personal use. Then there’s the matter of McKinzie’s $250,000-a-year salary that was allegedly hiked to $375,000; the purchase of a $1 million life insurance policy for McKinzie; an agreement for McKinzie’s private company to manage a planned $100 million endowment for a fee; and the assertion that all of these decisions were made without approval of the membership and in violation of the organization’s bylaws.

The plaintiffs say they were barred from questioning decisions of the leaders, and those who did object were disciplined by having their membership privileges withdrawn or suspended without benefit of appeal, according to the suit.

The disaffected members contend in the lawsuit that they “have been denied access to books, papers, and the records” of the sorority, despite their demands to inspect the materials. The Friends of the Weeping Ivy Web site includes a letter from the sorority’s attorney, Lester Barclay, claiming the Friends “have no standing to raise such criticisms” against their leaders.

The lawsuit seeks a number of remedies including removal of McKinzie from the presidency, removal of the board of directors (directorate), return of unapproved expenditures, a halt to further disputed payments, and monetary damages to be determined at trial.

Although McDowell would not address all of the specific claims in the lawsuit, she called them “categorically untrue” and said “they will be addressed in the proper format. In time, everybody will know the truth.”

The internecine bickering, which has now found its way into mass media, reveal hairline cracks that have gradually become craters in the esteemed sisterhood. At the center of it all – finances, which have been an ongoing problem. AKA currently has “a budget of nearly $14 million and is comprised of more than 260,000 members in more than 950 chapters worldwide,” according to McKinzie’s statement.

In her previous position as vice president, McKinzie had sued the organization for suspending her in a squabble over expenses. She is now faced with suits from another member, Joy Elaine Daley of Newburgh, N.Y., seeking reinstatement after being suspended over a financial dispute and unauthorized use of sorority stationery.  And another member, Dr. Pamela Redden of Cleveland, Ohio, filed suit against McKinzie and the organization earlier this year over “concocted financial hazing,”  which Redden says was actually retaliation for questioning McKinzie’s expenditures at the centennial meeting.

Altogether the organization’s various legal battles have cost members $500,000 since 2008, according to the eight plaintiffs in the June lawsuit.

Apparently more will be spent fighting this latest battle.  â€śTraditionally, we don’t spread our business around,” McDowell says, “but we intend to vigorously fight this and to move forward.”



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