ST. PETERSBURG — As the city prepares for its 25th Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade on Monday, the national organization founded by the civil rights leader is attempting to fend off financial and ethical scandal.
King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference — long tied to St. Petersburg's annual parade and Battle of the Bands field show — has fired two top executives as it investigates "possible mismanagement of organizational funds'' and "a personnel matter.''
The investigation is significant in local circles because charges of financial impropriety at SCLC's national level were first raised by former St. Petersburg chapter president Sevell Brown.
"This is not an instance where being vindicated is happy,'' said Jonathan Alpert, general counsel for the new civil rights organization Brown founded in the wake of his accusations.
"The critical factor is to preserve and protect the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. It's regrettable that the SCLC has been unable to do so,'' Alpert said.
Last summer, Dexter Wimbish, general counsel for the national group, called Brown's allegations "unfounded and libelous.''
Brown's assertions unleashed a public spat in the organization founded by King more than 50 years ago. In the battle of words, SCLC state president Art Rocker declared that Brown was "terminated'' from state office because he was an ineffective leader. Brown announced that he left the SCLC because it "has lost its way'' and "become the money changers in the temple of civil rights.''
Late last week, Rocker acknowledged that the SCLC's investigation into possible wrongdoings by top officials was set in motion only after Brown's allegations. But, Rocker said, the ousted SCLC officials — board chairman the Rev. Raleigh Trammell and treasurer Spiver Gordon — were not the only ones who needed to be investigated. Brown, too, had some financial accounting to do for money connected to St. Petersburg's annual Battle of the Bands program and Martin Luther King Day parade, he said.
"He's going to have to show some transparency for the funding that he has received. We're coming his way soon. If it is under the name of SCLC, we want every dime. I'm the new marshal in town,'' said Rocker, who holds the title of special assistant to the SCLC's interim national leader, the Rev. Sylvia Tucker.
Brown, 59, who calls his new civil rights group the National Christian League Council, could not be reached for comment. Alpert, the group's lawyer, spoke in his defense, saying Brown makes no money from the annual King events.
"When we go out to eat, we go to Ruby Tuesday,'' and he drives a 1967 Rambler, the lawyer said.
"Obviously, our brother Art Rocker doesn't understand the situation. First, the SCLC has never been connected to the parade and the Battle of the Bands. Second, when the St. Petersburg chapter withdrew from the national SCLC, the bank records were turned over to the national SCLC,'' Alpert said.
He added that the marching bands do not pay to participate in the events.
"Their costs have to be underwritten. Nobody makes any money off the parade. It is because the cost of underwriting the bands is so substantial that sponsorship funds are used to cover the costs of bringing the bands to St. Petersburg,'' Alpert said.
Financial documents for the events are filed with the city each year, Alpert said. Records with the city include Brown's requests for waivers of liability insurance and fees for the parade. The waivers are available only for 1996 through 1998, and 2005 through 2009. In almost every case, Brown applied for them in the SCLC's name.
In December, the city's senior administrator for community enrichment, Goliath Davis, told City Council members that the events actually are under the province of a group called the Martin Luther King Holiday and Legacy Association. The association, Alpert said, is "a simple nonprofit that has actually been running the parade for the last 25 years.'' State records indicate it was incorporated in 2003 and that Brown is its president.
The annual celebrations began modestly in 1985, with Brown and other SCLC members organizing a simple parade down Ninth Street — since renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. About 1,500 spectators attended the event, which ended with prayer and a barbecue in Bartlett Park.
The event has grown steadily. Organizers say it is now the largest event in the Southeast, attracting as many as 100,000 spectators.
On one occasion, Sam Lynn, St. Petersburg's police chief at the time, refused to issue a permit because of bills due from the 1988 parade. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on the SCLC's behalf, and a settlement produced two new ordinances. One waives a group's costs for police service and cleanup if it's a public issue speech event and the organization proves it can't pay.
The city's costs for parks, recreation and police over the past three years just for the parade were $49,473 in 2007, $42,091 in 2008 and $43,796 in 2009.
Attached to this year's request to waive fees for the parade is a bank statement for Brown's new civil rights group showing a balance of $24.88.
Alpert, the group's lawyer, is pledging transparency. He said he'll release financial records for this week's events after the celebrations are over.
"Once questions are raised, you want them answered,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.