Monday, December 6, 2004

AMERICUS, Ga. (AP) — Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller hitched a ride to the Atlanta airport with a female staff member to save the organization a $75 shuttle ride. That ride ended up costing him — and Habitat — a great deal more.

Accusations of “inappropriate conduct” during that drive last year led to Mr. Fuller’s temporary banishment from the headquarters of the Christian home-building organization that he and his wife, Linda, founded 28 years ago. Mr. Fuller said the board of directors was on the verge of firing him before he asked former President Jimmy Carter, Habitat’s most visible volunteer, to intervene.

Although the board eventually found there was “insufficient evidence” to substantiate the charges, Mr. Fuller said he agreed to step aside as chief executive officer to avoid an “unseemly” internal battle. In a compromise, he retained the largely ceremonial title of “founder and president.”

Mr. Fuller, who turns 70 next month, said he knew the time was coming when he would have to make way for new leadership. But Mrs. Fuller worries that the attempt to oust her husband is a symptom of a “culture change” in Habitat from a hopeful religious mission to a bottom-line bureaucracy.

That was not the first time Mr. Fuller had been accused of being too familiar with female staff.

In 1990, several women at the headquarters accused the founder of sexual harassment — a kiss on the cheek, a hug, a compliment about pretty blue eyes. Mr. Fuller was prepared to step down until Mr. Carter threatened to withdraw his support from Habitat.

Mr. Fuller said he grew up in a touchy-feely country culture and acknowledges the behavior.

“There was a dispute on interpreting the facts,” he said of the earlier case. But this time, “there’s not even the tiniest element of truth in it.”

“One of the Ten Commandments is, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness,’” Mr. Fuller said. “This is false witness.”

Mrs. Fuller said the board was “that close to firing Millard” in April before Mr. Carter, the couple’s longtime friend, came in to mediate. Mr. Carter declined to comment on his role.

The Fullers signed an agreement to exchange their silence on the matter for their salaries for life, but Mrs. Fuller found the terms unbearable.

In August, Habitat announced that a search committee was being formed to look for a successor to Mr. Fuller. In early October, the Fullers backed out of their silence agreement and were preparing a mass mailing to affiliates about the situation when board Chairman Rey Ramsey asked for a meeting.

After the three-hour talk, Mr. Ramsey released a statement saying: “Millard decided to relinquish the position of CEO and the board is accepting his decision.”

Interim CEO Paul Leonard — a Presbyterian minister and former executive with housing giant Centex — said it takes more than just a charismatic leader to run an organization the size of Habitat.

“You have to have the enthusiasm that a Millard Fuller brings,” he said. “But right alongside of it you have to be organizing and putting in place the people that you need to carry things forward.”

It is that last part that most worries the Fullers. One of Habitat’s founding principles was that neither Mr. Fuller nor his staff would “get rich off the poor.”

In a Nov. 5 letter to members of the search committee, Mr. Fuller expressed his concerns that the board would hire a high-paid bean counter instead of someone with “strong Christian commitment.”

“The danger, I fear, is that Habitat for Humanity will become a bureaucracy,” he wrote. “If we lose the ‘movement mentality,’ we will not go out of existence, but we will stagnate and become ‘just another nonprofit’ doing good work across the country and around the world.”

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