By Nicolle M. Jones
A group of disenfranchised Black publishers have vowed to continue their fight to save the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) after a Washington, D.C. judge granted summary judgment against the publishers’ blistering lawsuit, temporarily ending a 4-year-old legal battle to remove its president and CEO, Benjamin Chavis.
Amelia Ashley-Ward, Publisher of the California Voice and Sun Reporter Newspaper in San Francisco and former chairman of the NNPA Foundation, the non-profit arm of the organization, and Dorothy R. Leavell, Editor and Publisher of the Chicago and Gary Crusader Newspapers are leading the effort to save the organization as its future remains uncertain under Chavis’ leadership.
Filed in 2019, the lawsuit alleged Chavis orchestrated a scheme to prevent Crusader Publisher and former NNPA Chairman Dorothy R. Leavell from winning reelection that year after she called for a forensic audit amid allegations that Chavis was misusing the organization’s dwindling funds to finance lavish, exotic trips and a big salary for an employee with whom he allegedly had intimate relations, among other alleged misconduct. And Ward was thwarted from winning an At-Large seat when she repeatedly asked for an accounting of earmarked NNPA Foundation funds which she believed were being siphoned by Chavis and his allies to bolster NNPA finances, and also prevented two Foundation board members supported by Chavis from selling the Foundation’s headquarters without authorization.
The allegations rekindled concerns of Chavis’ past behavior as president of the NAACP, which fired him after he secretly paid $332,000 to avoid a threatened lawsuit by a woman who accused him in 1995 of discrimination and harassment, charges which Chavis has denied.
After converting to the Nation of Islam, Chavis, then styling himself as Benjamin Muhammed, was appointed Minister of the Nation’s famed Mosque No. 7 in Harlem. But he was removed from that role after being sued in 2000 for harassing and assaulting a young Muslim woman after pressuring her into having an affair with him – once again, charges he denied.
Now, decades later Chavis is causing concern among a group of disenfranchised Black publishers who are struggling to remove him from the organization amid questions about his leadership, spending habits, and relationships with female NNPA publishers and employees who support him as the organization’s future hangs in the balance.
The lawsuit gave a glimpse into the Chavis’ 8-year tenure at NNPA, where he has been accused of being an obsessive and controlling leader who for years maintained a tight, secretive grip on the organization’s finances and made decisions that benefited him and a specific group of newspapers publishers to whom he steered national advertisements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to their publications. Meanwhile other publishers equally entitled to receive such advertisements, but who were not in Chavis’ favor, languished and saw their revenues diminished.
Fed up with the alleged misconduct, Leavell, publisher and owner of the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers, ran for chairman of the NNPA in 2017. She ran an “Advertising for All ‘’ campaign that appealed to over 40 small Black newspapers who had grown disillusioned with Chavis’ leadership and his alleged practice of steering lucrative advertisements from big corporations to NNPA’s favored Black newspapers.
When Leavell ran in 2017, she encountered heavy opposition from Black publishers whom Chavis blessed with advertisements. But in June 2017 at the NNPA Convention at the Gaylord National Convention Center in Fort Washington, Maryland, Leavell was elected chairman for a two-year term by a vote of 45 to 32 over Washington Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes, an ally and alleged intimate friend of Chavis.
During her term, Leavell questioned the spending practices of the organization by Chavis and Treasurer Janis Ware, who for five months beginning in 2018 stopped sending checks for vendors and employees to Leavell for her signature (which had traditionally been the practice). Leavell would often learn about Chavis’ expensive trips from sources other than Chavis himself., although they were being financed by NNPA while she was Board Chairman. During the March 2019 Board of Directors meeting Chavis informed Leavell and the Board that, unilaterally and without authorization, he had promoted his secretary, Claudette Perry, and raised her salary from $70,000 to $120,000. Text messages on Chavis’ phone support allegations that Ms. Perry had an intimate relationship with Chavis. These issues came to a head on a conference call in May 2019. Leavell as chairman called for a forensic audit after several Black publishers raised concerns about purchases and spending that eroded the organization’s bank account. After Leavell called for an audit, Chavis begged her not to go through with it and offered to come to Chicago “to spend time with her” for several days to allay her concerns. Leavell did not accept Chavis’ offer and vowed to go through with her plans.
Leavell on multiple occasions unsuccessfully attempted to reverse the decision on behalf of the disenfranchised publishers, including at the annual convention, calling for a Special Board meeting that was boycotted by the Board Members who supported Chavis (some of whom listened in on the conference call, but did not appear and identify themselves, allegedly to assure and keep Chavis advised that a quorum was not present).
With her first term nearly over, Leavell also decided to run for a second term. But several weeks before her reelection bid, Leavell as NNPA Board Chairman learned that Atlanta Voice Publisher and NNPA Treasurer Janis Ware, a Chavis ally, had traveled to the NNPA office in Washington D.C. and taken it upon herself herself to ‘re-interpret’ the NNPA’s By-Laws and then decertified from voting almost half of the NNPA’s publishers, including those who had voted for Leavell in 2017 or were otherwise thought to be Leavell supporters. Ware had no authority to do so.
On June 29, 2019, the NNPA announced the results of the election. Without the support of the disenfranchised publishers who elected her two years prior and other disenfranchised supporters, Leavell this time lost in a landslide to Karen Carter Richards, publisher of the Houston Forward Times. Chavis’ handpicked candidate won and has been in office ever since. At the same time, Ashley-Ward lost her campaign for an At-Large seat on the Board.
It was an awkward evening at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cincinnati, where Chavis looked worried. He did not make the announcement until after several of his allies were seen prodding him to return to the stage to declare Richards as the NNPA’s new chairman.
Months later, in 2019, Leavell joined Amelia Ashley-Ward, publisher of the California Voice and the San Francisco Sun-Reporter, to file a lawsuit against Chavis, Ware and the NNPA, alleging that she “and numerous other NNPA Class A Members were deprived of their voting rights in connection with the 2019 Board elections, and to declare that the 2019 Board elections were invalid because of alleged manipulation and misinterpretation of the NNPA’s By-Laws by Chavis and Atlanta Voice Publisher Janis Ware, aided by Attorney A. Scott Bolden.” Bolden and his firm, Reed Smith, were and are NNPA’s general counsel, although surprisingly they did not represent NNPA in the lawsuit but instead represented Chavis and Ware individually. The dissenting publishers have speculated that he and Reed Smith might have done so because of the availability of NNPA’s directors-and-officers liability insurance to pay the fees incurred for Chavis’ and Ware’s representation. This handling of the representation also was unusual because of the possibility of NNPA (for which Bolden and Reed Smith continue to act as general counsel) having claims against Chavis and Ware if NNPA was found liable for the individuals’ alleged intentional misconduct. Indeed, before the court’s decision, Bolden emailed Leavell’s and Ashley-Ward’s counsel to advise that the defense had used up the available insurance money.
The lawsuit also alleged that the NNPA, Chavis and Ware had engaged in unauthorized and improper conduct by commingling funds between the NNPA Foundation and the NNPA; had engaged in financial abuse and mismanagement of NNPA; and had retaliated against NNPA Officers and members who had objected to this misconduct and attempted to investigate it.
Information surfacing during the lawsuit and revealing the unsavory circumstances surrounding Chavis’ regime, included (among other things) texts from Chavis’ phone provided by Tish Kay Bazil, who described herself as having both a professional and intimate relationship with Chavis and who consequently had access to whatever was received or sent from Chavis’ cell phone including concerning strictly NNPA business. Bazil offered to sell pictures of texts received by or sent from Mr. Chavis’ phone. Bazil said she had been promised $8,500 to join Chavis on a trip to Malawi, Africa, but had not been paid and now needed money. She then secretly traveled to the 2019 NNPA convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, literally disguised herself, and provided text messages showing both Chavis’ “messy” intimate relationships and confirming his and his allies’ manipulation to disenfranchise NNPA members and gerrymander the 2019 elections.
In a recent letter to NNPA publishers, Ashley-Ward and Leavell said, “these texts [messages] showed plenty of improper conduct by Chavis and others concerning the June 2019 election. Those texts, which included texts sent to and from Ms. Perry and which included one actually directed to Ms. Bazil from Ms. Perry and not from Mr. Chavis, show the intimate relationship then existing between Ms. Perry and Mr. Chavis.” The texts were submitted to the court in opposition to the summary judgment motion.
A separate lawsuit was filed by Carole Geary of the Milwaukee Courier, whom Chavis and his friends sought to throw off the Board although she had a full year to complete her two-year election representing Region 3 (Midwest newspapers).
After the lawsuits were filed, Chavis and the members of the NNPA tried to expel Geary, Ashley-Ward, and Leavell from the organization. The NNPA Board of Directors voted to expel them on allegedly specious charges, but the NNPA membership as a whole finally rebelled enough to reject the Board’s recommendation, thereby keeping Geary, Leavell, and Ashley-Ward as members.
As with many lawsuits, Ashley-Ward and Leavell’s complaint dragged on through court in Washington, D.C. with many delays and continuances. The coronavirus pandemic caused further delays and by the time it was over, four judges had presided over the case without it ever going to trial. Geary’s case went before two judges before it was dismissed.
On May 10, after a long, four-year legal battle, Judge Ebony Scott dismissed the Ward, Leavell case – although somehow the Court failed to notify the lawsuit participants of this decision when it was made. Leavell, Ward, and the disenfranchised publishers first learned that the lawsuit was dismissed on June 23, 2023, from Bolden, NNPA’s general counsel and Chavis’ and Ware’s lawsuit counsel. In an email, Bolden claimed he also did not receive notification of the dismissal after it had been dismissed on May 10.
Of significance, the court did not grant summary judgment against the Ashley-Ward and Leavell lawsuit because the allegations against Chavis and NNPA were not true. In her ruling, Judge Scott said because the 2019 and 2021 NNPA Board elections were over and could not be redone, and because the organization’s By-Laws had been amended to allegedly prevent a recurrence of what had happened in 2019, the lawsuit’s original claim was “moot,” meaning that there was no longer a “live” dispute on which Judge Scott could rule.
Judge Scott also ruled that claims concerning Chavis’ alleged financial abuse and misconduct toward the NNPA itself could not be pursued individually by Leavell and Ashley-Ward, but would have to be pursued in a ‘derivative’ lawsuit, meaning a lawsuit that could be brought by Leavell and Ashley-Ward, or others, but only on behalf of the NNPA itself. Therefore, the possibility or probability of another lawsuit remains, although neither Leavell nor Ashley-Ward would specifically comment on the likelihood of another suit for purposes of this article. In their letter to the publishers, Ward and Leavell wrote “Although Mr. Chavis seems to be taking a victory lap because of the recent summary judgment in our case, as usual there are many facts of which he has not informed you.”
Ward and Leavell and the disenfranchised Black publishers have stated that they view the ruling with fresh hope. In their letter, they said their lawyers are discussing filing another lawsuit, this time a “derivative complaint, through which the disenfranchised Black publishers would take action on behalf of the NNPA notwithstanding the Board of Directors, Mr. Chavis and Mr. Bolden, in order to investigate and as appropriate, correct and obtain redress for Mr. Chavis’ use of NNPA funds for his own benefit and peccadillos; the commingling of Foundation and NNPA funds; his unequal treatment of NNPA members; and other misconduct which has adversely affected the NNPA and its collective membership.”
The letter continued: “How is it a good thing for NNPA for Mr. Chavis to deny knowing anything about texts while under oath, even while admitting that it was his picture tagged on to some of his texts? Scheming with his allies to gerrymander elections against people asking about what he was doing with NNPA and Foundation finances, and texting about it using a phone to which his outside girlfriend (Bazil) had full access. Being assisted by our outside general counsel (Bolden) who instead of representing the NNPA in this case, is instead representing Mr. Chavis and Ms. Ware. Sending to the Court a false sworn declaration and what is really pathetic – the Court already had ruled on all of this, but Chavis and his (our) counsel, as well as our paid counsel just didn’t know about it, which made the whole false declaration unnecessary. Is this really how all of you think the NNPA is best run?”
Further developments are expected.