A member of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People has asked state elections officials to investigate potential mishandling of campaign funds in the committee’s political organization.
The move comes as some people in the 76-year-old civic group, one of Durham’s oldest and most prominent, have been calling for an ouster of its chairwoman, Lavonia Allison.
Committee member Victoria Peterson submitted a two-paragraph letter to the State Board of Elections on Monday asking it to look into a pair of transactions that took place over a two-day stretch last fall.
On Oct. 24, according to Peterson — but not the public document on which her claim is based — the Durham Committee’s political action committee reported receiving an $8,000 contribution from the committee of incumbent Rep. David Price (D-Chapel Hill), who was re-elected in November. The next day, records show, the PAC paid $8,822.61 as reimbursement for bulk mail postage to Allison.
“The organization fiscal report stated that Dr. Allison paid for bulk mail, but there is no evidence of such a transaction,” Peterson wrote to Kim Strach, the state board’s deputy director for campaign reporting.
In a brief phone conversation Tuesday afternoon, Allison declined to be interviewed but dismissed the allegations against her as falsehoods.
“I’m not going to get into something that is totally, totally prevarications,” said Allison, who became chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People roughly 13 years ago. “People can’t even read an electronic [campaign finance] report. It’s sad.”
North Carolina law carries penalties for intentional wrongdoing on campaign finance laws; willfully filing a false campaign report is a Class I felony, though most campaign finance violations are misdemeanors, which carry lower penalties.
An inspection of campaign finance records, which are publicly available, suggests that parties on both sides of Peterson’s complaint could be off point to some degree.
The $8,000 given to the Durham Committee PAC by the Price for Congress Committee actually is reported as representing donations for the entire 2010 election cycle, which began January 2009; the Oct. 24 check Peterson cites was for $2,000, committee records show.
North Carolina law limits individuals and organizations to contributing a maximum of $4,000 to any candidate or political committee during any single two-year period. Although there are some discrepancies, the bulk of the records for both the Price and Durham Committee groups indicate that Price’s organization contributed less than $4,000 for the 2010 cycle, despite the report entry showing $8,000 in cumulative contributions.
The larger amount seems to represent the total that Price’s group gave in 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2010 combined.
As far as the other part of Peterson’s complaint: Even assuming that Allison was properly reimbursed for bulk mail postage, Allison and Durham Committee chair treasurer Keith Bishop may not have reported the transaction correctly. The PAC’s summary for the final quarter of 2010 indicates that that organization neither received nor made any kind of reimbursement or refund in the quarter or the entire cycle. Similarly, the sheet lists no in-kind contributions received by the PAC during both time periods.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Durham Committee has had a campaign finance reporting issue in recent years. The group amended its 2008 third-quarter filing twice. In May 2009, Bishop signed an amended 2008 fourth-quarter report for the Durham Committee PAC, but a state elections worker marked the form as having been postmarked and received August 2010.
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Whether innocent errors or not, problems with Durham Committee finances have been a key point of concern for some Committee members advocating for a change in organizational leadership.
In keeping with group tradition, members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People contacted by Bull City Rising would not describe the discussions of the group’s March 3 meeting — which, Allison asserted, was not an official committee gathering. But the campaign finance irregularities were among those detailed in a packet of papers distributed at the meeting.
Like that meeting, Peterson’s complaining to elections authorities represents another step in an effort by some Durham Committee members to oust Allison.
While various critics of the chairwoman said in separate interviews Tuesday that they are not working on a coordinated campaign, they all agreed on a common message: It’s time for the committee to find a new leader.
Chuck Watts is a business law attorney who has wanted to see Allison supplanted since 2008, when the Durham Committee adamantly opposed a meals tax. With former Durham Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff, Watts led A Taste for Durham’s Future, a group trying to pass a referendum that would have steered a 1 percent tax on prepared foods to culture and recreation construction, maintenance and marketing. The measure was defeated, 72 percent to 28 percent.
Watts feels that the documents distributed last week aren’t conclusive in and of themselves. But he said they raised questions about the Durham Committee’s handling of money that he would like to see answered.
“I don’t think the finances of the organization have been sufficiently transparent,” Watts said.
He believes that there are a number of Durham Committee members who want the organization to operate in a more accountable fashion.
“There’s a broader interest in the committee being open and transparent and not subject to the dictator kind of role that seems to be going on right now,” Watts said. “Whether it’s Dr. Allison, Dr. Lavonia Allison, or someone else at the leadership, at the chair, I think it’s a deeper concern than her. The deeper concern is about having finances be adequately disclosed, reported, prepared, so forth and so on.
“I am concerned, frankly, that it’s too much of an issue about a personality and not enough of an issue about an organization.”
Darius Little, a self-employed business consultant and former City Council candidate, has been involved with the Durham Committee for about two and a half years. Like Watts and Peterson, he is critical of how the Durham Committee has operated under Allison.
“Membership is not allowed to actively participate in the decision-making process of the organization, and the founders created it to allow it to be representative of the people,” Little said.
The organization’s financial reporting — which is separate from that of the political action committee, which by law must provide detailed disclosures — has been notably lacking, Little feels. “There has not been one individual who can recall receiving a financial statement, report, receipt or any type of expenditures as it relates to the organization under the current chair’s leadership,” Little said.
He added: “Outside of meetings, it is not unusual to see the chair accost any individual who has asked questions about the running of the organization.”
While Peterson said at one point that Allison had “done a great job,” she maintains that the chairwoman’s moment has passed.
“I think that Dr. Allison has become very rude over the last several years,” Peterson said. “She doesn’t allow new thinking, new ideas. And she doesn’t seem to really want to take the organization into the 21st century.”
She characterized the mentality of the group — which only allows black people to attend meetings — as belonging to the segregated decades of the 1940s and 1950s.
“I feel that the organization is stunting its growth because of her leadership now, because of her present leadership,” Peterson said of Allison.
The bottom line for Peterson? She thinks that a change at the top will benefit the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. And she’d like to see that change come soon.
It's still an open question how effective this latest push from some community members to change the Committee's leadership will be.
As the Independent Weekly and other media outlets have noted in their coverage, Little and Peterson — two of the most widely-quoted individuals relative to a desire for change — have mixed track records in local civic affairs. Little has faced past legal run-ins for bounced checks and questions over services rendered in a mediation/legal affair, while Peterson's controversial stances on everything from the Duke lacrosse case to gay rights to illegal immigration and her perennial status as an unsuccessful candidate for office cloud her own reputation.
While Peterson and Little helped to organize and publicize last week's meeting, however, they weren't the only ones present. And the real unknown at this point is how many others in Durham's African-American leadership are supporting the cause.
In any event, by asking state officials to scrutinize transactions at the committee’s political wing, Peterson turned up the pressure on one of the city’s most prominent civic leaders.
According to Strach at the State Board of Elections, the board has no set time frame for investigating complaints. “We try to get them as quickly as possible, understanding that we do have a number of complaints that have been filed, and they have different degrees of complexity,” she said.
Peterson’s letter was still being evaluated as of the close of business Tuesday, Strach said.