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Seattle’s Urban League: Crisis Not Averted

March 2, 2011

It’s pretty bad.

The Urban League’s problems run deeper than the questionable contracts it had with the Seattle School District.

Most revealing about the State Auditor’s report: the Urban League is not doing well financially. When interviewed for the SAO report, interim Executive Director Tony Benjamin said (more than once) the League needed the school district’s money to “keep the doors open.”

The Seattle Times:

In January, the city yanked a $500,000-a-year contract for the Urban League’s youth-violence prevention work and awarded it to other organizations. The city criticized the Urban League for submitting vague, inaccurate invoices — accusations similar to those raised by auditors in the schools scandal.

The city also cut long-standing financial support of the Urban League’s center to help minority small-business owners to get construction contracts, deciding to seek other bidders for the first time in years.

And this:

A city evaluation finished last month criticized the Urban League’s performance on the contract — rating its performance “below requirements” or “deficient” in 16 of 28 categories.

The harshest grades were for sloppy invoices and budget problems — issues similar to those raised by state auditors with the Urban League’s work with the school district.

The League’s Contractor Development & Competitiveness Center has lost a lot of financial support- from the school district and the City of Seattle, which cut it’s contract of nearly $500,000 a year down to just $100,000. If you work in the non-profit, social-justice sector, you know that’s a lot of money to lose.

Community members are quietly asking if the Urban League can weather this perfect storm of financial woes, criminal investigations and political and community fall-out.

It’s anyone’s guess.

But the League isn’t going down quietly. Today they held a press conference hoping to quell the talk.  What they had to say isn’t very surprising; the Urban League had a contract with the school district that was approved and they performed to the expectation set in said contract.

It’s a slippery slope.  The fact of the matter is the integrity of the contracts themselves is inescapably relevant.  Nevertheless, the League, and any other contractor, can sling that burden in Silas Potter’s direction, and that of his supervisor Ron English (who is probably going to be fired by Seattle School’s before the end of the day).

Technically the League is right about that. On the other hand, if they can’t show some sort of evidence they actually provided the work they were contracted to do, the entire matter reverts to square one: what were they getting money for and what were they doing with it?

The press conference today did nothing to help clear any confusion.  Tony Benjamin, not accustomed to handling such forceful question from reporters, did his best with the crap hand he had to play.

It wasn’t good enough.

Let me set the stage: the conference room at the UL was standing room only, full of staff, supporters, board members, people who do not support the UL, and reporters. It says something when the most respected newsies attend this kind of press conference, like Robert Mak from KING5 news.  Every station sent their most respected, their most diligent reporters to this press conference. National news outlets were there too. That in itself is telling.

Mr. Benjamin was forceful in his assertions that the UL has done no wrong.  He said the SAO’s report found no wrong-doing on their part.  The contracts were approved by the school district and the UL fulfilled them and provided ample documentation to the district.  He says they provided ample documentation and are confident they did nothing wrong.

While there were UL supporters in the room, there were also critics.  At least 3 people slammed the UL with questions ranging from the YVPI money to the CDCC money to the Heritage Museum and finally, school closures.  Whenever they spoke up, others in the room shouted them down and said it wasn’t the time or place for such questions.  This happened at least 3 times by my count, and it was all in front of cameras.

They declined to answer some questions about Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Silas Potter and the loss of contracts like the YVPI funding and employee turnover.  He said the UL had and has no concerns about their relationship with Silas Potter, and that they are saddened by the situation. He also said that since the UL starting receiving money from the City of Seattle for YVPI, “no youth” have died as a result of youth violence in Seattle, in response to community members asking what the money was used for.

There was a lot of sidestepping of questions, lots of finessing to give politically correct answers that didn’t pin them in the corner.

Mr. Benjamin said the focus on this scandal is bad for the community, bad for “our culture” and bad for progress. He urged the media and all concerned to move on, and to not jeopardize the good work of the UL with all of this negativity. He said repeatedly that the reports in the media were based on innuendo.  He said that to his knowledge, the King County prosecutor’s office has not contacted anyone at the UL, and to his knowledge no one at the UL, past or present is under criminal investigation. But since

Reporters asked probing questions about the UL’s practices around contracts.  The Youth Violence Prevention Initiative came up more than once.  I was absolutely stunned to hear Mr. Benjamin claim that since the UL began receiving money from the city for YVPI, “no youth” have died as a result of youth violence. That is absolutely untrue, and speaks to the politicking around how we define youth violence in our city.

On the CDCC side, Mr. Benjamin said that of the nearly $600,000 the UL received, it gave our over $300,000 in subcontracts.  But then he also admitted that some of those subcontracts went to individuals and small businesses that have also been named in the SAO report.  He did not specify who those folks are.

Asked point blank if the UL used SPS money to “keep the doors open”, Mr. Benjamin said that he did say that, but it was taken out of context in the SAO report.  That said, he did not deny that monies were used to keep the CDCC program afloat.  He said it is a common practice and they have many local and national partners who understand that and support it.

As the press conference was ending, Eddie Rye, who has been named in the SAO’s investigation, attempted to get on the mic. Mr. Benjamin refused him the podium and UL supporters quickly filed out of the room, openly expressing their disdain for Mr. Rye.  If I heard it, I’m sure other folks in the media did as well. Once the UL staff and supporters were out of the room. Mr. Rye took over the podium.  Two minutes later UL staff returned and told him if he wanted to have a press conference he could do so outside.  He stood on the front steps on the UL for about 20 minutes, making his argument that he did nothing wrong in this situation. He said “we were betrayed” and duped by Silas Potter- but he and others did nothing wrong.

UL supporters and board members expressed strong support for Tony Benjamin, and felt he “shined” in the press conference.

I think that’s a bit of a stretch.  In my view, this was yet another missed opportunity, not just for the UL, but for the broader community.  Yes, there were good business people who got contracts through SPS, who did the work they were contracted to do.  They weren’t looking for kickbacks or inflated contracts or easy money.  Nevertheless, this is a stain on the UL and the Black community, and it’s residue will be around for years to come.

I had hoped to hear a more conciliatory tone from the UL.  I had hoped they would express their own concern at what has happened, and pledged their full cooperation to get to the bottom of it all. Instead it was “this is too damaging to focus on. It’s bad for the Black community (I’m paraphrasing there).”

I’ve said this before on the SV; there is plenty of concern, going back years, about how the UL conducts itself, and broader, how the “old guard” in the Black community conducts itself. They feel this has set the entire community back.

All in all, I heard a lot of contradictions and half-truths from the man who by all accounts, will be the next President and CEO of the Seattle Urban League.











2 Comments leave one →
  1. Charlie Smith permalink
    March 2, 2011 1:40 pm

    It sounds sad, but organizations that rely on member support (NAACP) are thriving despite internal troubles, and organizations relying on government contracts are not.

  2. Karen Primeau permalink
    March 2, 2011 4:03 pm

    I sincerely hope the UL Board will make a decision on the next executive director based on qualifications and not on proximity. I think it is clear the UL needs new leadership and a new direction.

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