Spurred by the senseless hazing death of Robert Champion at Florida A&M University in November 2011, U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member) proposed legislation, on May 31, 2012, to end hazing on college campuses. During a press conference at the National Press Club, she and college-based organization leaders launched their national publicity campaign aimed at black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs), themed "Let's not beat the life out of a beautiful legacy." Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity -- supported by other black fraternities and sororities as well as Reverend Al Sharpton's (Phi Beta Sigma member) National Action Network -- plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to supplement free media spots, with ESPN agreeing to broadcast public service announcements on its radio network in major markets. Even more, fraternities and sororities plan to hold sensitivity sessions around the country on September 6, 2012 to try and end violent hazing. Jonathan Mason, Phi Beta Sigma's First Vice President, proclaimed that "[t]his is the beginning of the end of a culture of hazing, while moving to a culture of service." Mr. Mason's pronouncement is premature unless BGLOs have the fortitude, integrity and perspicacity to address the complex factors which undergird and propel violent hazing. Among these factors is the culture within BGLOs that supports the violation of organizational rules and societal laws, from the national heads on down. Among college members, the issue is most frequently hazing. Among the leadership, the issue is most often conversion of organizational funds, embezzlement and fraud (1).
Just looking at "public" incidents as determined by what matters have gone to court, in just the past few years, a number of BGLO leaders and organizations have been embroiled in litigation over financial malfeasance. In 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit handed down an opinion in matter brought by a Zeta Phi Beta Sorority member against the sorority. In Stark v. Zeta Phi Beta, Natasha Stark discovered that the sorority's international President, Barbara Moore, had used the sorority credit cards to purchase personal items, totaling more than $300,000. These improprieties violated both the sorority's internal bylaws as well as the IRS code. The sorority's Board of Directors dealt with the situation by allowing Moore to keep her position in exchange for signing a promissory note to repay the debt over a five year period. Stark took it upon herself to inform both the media and the U.S. Attorney for D.C. of Moore's actions. Ultimately, the Assistant U.S. Attorney for D.C. launched a Federal Grand Jury investigation. In response, Zeta Phi Beta suspended and later expelled Stark from the sorority. Stark brought a civil suit against the sorority in the U.S. District Court for D.C., which she lost at both the trial and appellate level (2).
In 2009 and 2010, Phi Beta Sigma had a matter go before the U.S. District Court for D.C. and ultimately the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, respectively, in United States v. Davis. Terry Davis, the fraternity's former National Treasurer had allegedly stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fraternity. In August 2007, Davis was convicted and sentenced to 51 months of imprisonment on each of the bank fraud charges and 24 months of imprisonment on theft and fraud charges. He was also ordered to pay more than $200,000 in restitution to Phi Beta Sigma. Davis, in turn, appealed the matter over certain evidentiary issues. Ultimately, prior to Davis' sentencing in February 2011, he plead guilty to bank fraud. Under the plea agreement, Davis would 1) not serve any additional time beyond what jail-time he had already served between May 2007 and December 2009, 2) have a one year supervised-release period, and 3) pay $50,000 in restitution to Phi Beta Sigma (3).
Since 2009, there have been several lawsuits filed in regard to alleged financial malfeasance on the part of Barbara McKinzie, Alpha Kappa Alpha's former national head. In the Illinois Circuit Court, sorority members brought suit in Shackelford v. Alpha Kappa Alpha and Purnell v. Alpha Kappa Alpha. In the District of Columbia, sorority members brought suit in Daley v. Alpha Kappa Alpha. In Daley, plaintiffs brought claims of waste, fraud, unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty and wrongful discipline. Prior to filing a lawsuit, the plaintiffs had voiced their concerns at chapter meetings and within the organization. They sought to receive answers from sorority leadership, and when their inquiries were rebuffed they asked to inspect the sorority's records to assuage their concerns. When they exhausted more amicable options, they initiated a lawsuit against the sorority and its officers and directors. In response, they then had their membership privileges suspended. In late 2011, the D.C. Court of Appeals remanded this case to the D.C. Superior Court for further resolution of the matter (4).
Indeed, there are vast distinctions between brutalizing someone and stealing from one's fraternity brothers or sorority sisters. There are, however, disturbing commonalities as well. First, they both emerge from a culture of secrecy, rule and law violation, and often persecution of whistle-blowers for "airing the organization's dirty laundry." Second, both involve the same set of excuses: "It's some other member's fault," "If the victim(s) didn't tell, the organization wouldn't have this problem," "I'm not the first to do this; it reflects a broader culture and not my own poor judgment," or "the only reason we know about this incident is because there are people with personal agendas, being vindictive." While hazing is undeniably far more prevalent than financial malfeasance within BGLOs, the cases brought by BGLO members against their organizations underscore the adage, "where there's smoke, there's fire." The reason that there are far-fewer than a handful of court cases against BGLOs or their leaders for financial malfeasance is only because non-members, those with less compunction to "air dirty laundry about the organizations" than members, are not being directly harmed. Moreover, members who are in-the-know often do not want to harm their organization by taking the matter public or are fearful of being suspended or expelled and ultimately having deep fraternal ties -- often intertwined with familial and professional relationships -- undermined.
The amazing asymmetry between how BGLOs deal with rule and law violation amongst their rank-and-file members, especially undergraduates, vis-à-vis national leaders, especially the national heads, is disconcerting. The organizations are not hesitant to aggressively go after Joe and Jane Member for hazing. For example, several BGLOs publish the names of suspended and expelled members -- often for hazing -- on their national websites. Others underscore the fact that they have and will look to the courts to address hazing within their ranks. Reverend Herman "Skip" Mason, the 33rd General President of Alpha Phi Alpha, noted in a December 2009 press release, "We will take every legal means at our disposal, both civil and criminal, to charge and bring to justice any person who commits a crime and tarnishes our good name in the process." However, when it comes to the national boards of these organizations dealing with financial malfeasance among their national heads, little seems to be done -- certainly not to the extent that organizational rules or the law might dictate. Or the organizations are simply slow to act.
What is most problematic about the failure of the respective BGLOs to hold their national heads accountable when it comes to pilfering organizational funds is that it undermines the moral authority of BGLO leadership to tell undergraduate members to obey organizational rules as well as state and federal laws. Why should 19, 20 or 21-year-old BGLO member stop hazing when 40, 50 and 60-year-old members will not stop stealing? If BGLOs want to seriously curb hazing within their organizations, their effort to problem-solve must involve an "all options on the table" approach. This includes looking at the accountability amongst their national leadership.
(1) William E. Gibson, Campaign Launched to Stop College Hazing, Orlando Sentinel, June 1, 2012 at A3
(2) Stark v. Zeta Phi Beta, 587 F.Supp.2d 170 ( D.C. Cir. 2008)
(3) U.S. v. Davis, 664 F.Supp.2d 86 (D.C. 2009); U.S. v. Davis, 596 F.3d 852 (D.C. Cir. 2010)
(4) Daley v. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., 26 A.3d 723 (D.C. 2011); Amended Petition for Writ of Mandamus for Examination of Books and Records, Purnell v. Alpha Kappa Alpha, No. 10 CH 10972, (Ill. Cir. June 4, 2010); Complaint, Shackelford v. Alpha Kappa Alpha, 2009 WL 2966737 (Ill. Cir.) (No. 09 L 010473); Second Amended Complaint at 1, Shackelford v. Alpha Kappa Alpha, No. 09 L 010473 (Ill. Cir. June 23, 2011)
Gregory S. Parks is an Assistant Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law. His recent books include Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness: The Demands of Transcendence (2011) and African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision, second edition (2012).