King accuses United Way of discrimination

In federal complaint, former CEO's attorney says local board made her a ‘whipping boy' over pay controversy.

01/15/2009 12:00 AM

01/15/2009 6:54 AM

After months of public silence, former United Way CEO Gloria Pace King fired back against her critics Wednesday, accusing local board members of discrimination and making her the scapegoat for their own failed leadership.

Her response came in the form of three documents released by her attorney, Bill Diehl. They included a federal discrimination complaint, a three-page statement slamming the board's planned release of her expense account records, and a formal appeal for payment of the full $2.1 million pension that led to her dismissal.

The statement calls the anticipated release of King's expense account part of an ongoing “negative assault” of “absurd criticism” against her by the Observer, the United Way of Central Carolinas board, and “spineless” United Way employees who have spoken against her.

Diehl released copies of a Dec. 22 complaint King filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency that investigates allegations of workplace discrimination.

In it, she said racial and gender bias contributed to her firing. She noted that the board replaced her with former bank executive Mac Everett. He's being paid $20,000 a month as interim CEO, she said, despite the fact that the 2008 campaign fell $20 million short of what she raised in 2007.

King said she was fired “apparently because it was too difficult to defend to the community the decision to pay a black woman so much money.”

In the accompanying statement, King – through Diehl – called Everett “a white, country-clubber, wealthy ex-Wachovia banker” with too little experience in United Way work.

Everett said Wednesday: “I don't think I should respond to that.”

The board meets today, and is expected to discuss an audit of King's expense account. The audit is part of the board's response to the ongoing controversy over the $2.1 million supplemental pension, which the board's executive committee approved for King in 2006.

After news organizations revealed the pension last summer, board leaders initially defended her. But as public outcry grew, they called the pension an expensive mistake. They fired King on Sept. 30.

Diehl's statement in King's behalf describes her as “one of the premier United Way presidents in the country.” It asserts that she deserved the money she was paid. The pension was approved by board members, and they should have backed her, the statement says.

Instead, they “have done everything in their power to make Ms. King their whipping boy,” it says. “They have humiliated a proven leader, a black woman, a tireless public servant, two years from retirement.”

Diehl also released a copy of an appeal he sent to the board's compensation committee. It asks the panel to reverse its decision to cancel the pension. King has received nothing from it.

The appeal, dated Monday, says the board decided not to honor the pension after a consulting firm told members the plan would violate Internal Revenue Service rules against excessive compensation for nonprofit executives.

Diehl, however, argues that the firm's research is flawed and that the board has no grounds to deny payment.

The board's attorney, Russ Sizemore said no negotiations with King are taking place, and that King is required to formally appeal before she can sue over the pension.

“We still stand by our decision,” he said. “We're not convinced by their arguments.”

As for the EEOC complaint, he added: “We think any charge of racial discrimination is entirely without merit.”

Asked Wednesday if any discrimination against King took place, board Chairman Carlos Evans said, “No.”

The filing of the EEOC complaint serves as a preliminary step in federal discrimination complaints. The EEOC can sue on behalf of a worker; if it decides not to, it can issue “right to sue” letters allowing workers to file lawsuits themselves.

Diehl said King intends to sue if the EEOC does not and if the United Way doesn't reverse its pension decision.

In the complaint, King mounts a broad defense, including her first public response to the report issued last month by an investigative panel commissioned by the United Way.

She asserts:

That she was discriminated against because of her age. Board members waited roughly six years before granting her request for a supplemental pension, the complaint says. IRS rules limit what well-paid executives can contribute to some pensions, so she asked for a supplemental plan to keep her retirement benefits from falling below percentages her peers received.

She argues that by waiting, the board had to inject bigger sums to pay for the plan, thus generating the public outrage that led to her firing.

That she was discriminated against on the basis of gender because the panel that recommended her firing included only men. Board members have said the six-member group included past and future board chairs. King's complaint says Gracie Coleman, an African American female board member who helped approve the pension, wasn't included. Neither was former Chair Barbara Desoer, who also voted on the plan.

Despite multiple requests, Coleman and Desoer have declined to comment.

That former board chairmen Graham Denton and Ned Curran told King in July 2008 that she would have to give up the pension to keep her job.

That she did not delay the filing of the tax document that ultimately disclosed her new pension to the public. The investigative panel, led by Charlotte attorney Bob Sink, said she did. She said she sought only to delay posting the tax form on the United Way's Web site so board members would have a chance to discuss it at their June 2008 meeting.

That she did not manipulate pension data before it was presented to board members. The Sink panel said she offered last-minute suggestions to a consultant that made the deal much more lucrative. Board members who had worked on the plan up to then didn't know about those changes, Sink said.

King didn't cooperate with the Sink study. Those who did, she said, provided the Sink panel with a “tangle of falsehoods and half-truths.”

That the Sink report offered a “flagrant falsehood” when it said she and another United Way staffer made travel plans under a new sabbatical program she created without board approval.

She said she had not made travel plans herself, and that she withdrew the program after seeing board members were uncomfortable with the idea.

Sink's group said the board blocked the program over King's objections.

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