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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Sorority sisters claim funds misused

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

Eight members of a Greek-lettered sorority, whose ranks will include first lady Michelle Obama once she is inducted, claim in a lawsuit that their president and others misused funds on designer clothing and lingerie and failed to get approval from the membership on expenditures. But Barbara A. McKinzie, international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc. (AKA), which was founded at Howard University more than a century ago, denied wrongdoing and characterized the claims as "malicious allegations."

Members claim Ms. McKinzie misspent $900,000 on a wax likeness of herself and misused the AKA's American Express card for clothing, accessories and lingerie. They also claim she redeemed the points earned on the Amex card to buy gym equipment and a 46-inch television, according to news reports.

The 38-page lawsuit was filed in Washington, where the sorority was founded in 1908 and where it celebrated its centennial. AKA is headquartered in Chicago and says its worldwide membership is an estimated 250,000.

AKA is incorporated in the District as a nonprofit organization, and its nonprofit foundation is incorporated in Illinois.

Filed June 20, the suit claims, among other things, that Ms. McKinzie and other AKA leaders misappropriated AKA funds on: a $900,000 wax figure of herself; a four-year, $4,000-a-month personal stipend for when she leaves office; and $375,000 in compensation for services rendered on behalf of the sorority.

Ms. McKinzie also started a campaign to raise $100 million for an endowment fund that would be run by her own management company -- BMC Associates -- according to the lawsuit, which seeks Ms. McKinzie's removal from office.

The suit -- which names AKA, Ms. McKinzie and two dozen others -- also claims that several deductions on the AKA's 2006 and 2007 tax returns are "unreasonably large and inappropriate" and may "expose the organization to potential IRS claims and obligations," the Washington Business Journal reported last week.

The Chicago Sun-Times quoted the plaintiffs' attorney, Edward W. Gray Jr., as saying: "This is extraordinarily shocking if not illegal conduct."

AKA's membership includes such American icons as Eleanor Roosevelt, Coretta King and Toni Morrison, and such local notables as former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt and D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary Terrell. The sorority offered honorary membership to both Mrs. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton declined. Mrs. Obama accepted but has yet to be inducted.

Ms. McKinzie, comptroller for the Chicago Housing Authority, served as AKA's executive director (1985-87), treasurer (1998-2002) and vice president (2002-06). Her four-year term as president is slated to end in 2010.

Some members are recoiling from the "professionalization" of the organization, she told the Sun-Times.

"Change never comes easy," she said. "The malicious allegations leveled against AKA by former leaders are based on mischaracterizations and fabrications not befitting our ideals of sisterhood, ethics and service."

Ms. McKinzie's wax likeness and that of AKA's first president, Nellie Quander, cost $45,000, she said.

The wax figures will be displayed in an exhibit of other leaders of black fraternities and sororities in Baltimore at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

The nation's capital and the Washington Convention Center were the settings of AKA's centennial celebration last summer, when women, men and children donned the sorority's pink-and-green signature colors. Some were seen carrying their limited-edition Barbie, whose creation marked the first time Mattel Inc. had created a Barbie based on a sorority.

The centennial sit-down dinner set a Guinness world record for largest silver service dinner.

"Three tons of beef, 1.5 tons of mashed potatoes, and 40,000 lb of bagged ice were part of an epic menu that was to prove a meal fit for a record," the Guinness entry says. "During a presentation on 16 April 2009 at the expansive Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., Guinness World Records Adjudicator Danny Girton Jr., officially recognized the center's 17 July 2008 record-setting event, in which 16,206 guests of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority attended a celebratory banquet."

AKA is America's oldest black Greek-lettered sorority.