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Claims of unpaid bills following mayors’ events

An organisation set to hold its annual conference in Bermuda later this year racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills during earlier conventions, according to US news reports.

The Atlanta-based National Conference of Black Mayors, which represents more than 650 mayors across the United States, will be holding its 40th annual convention here in October, as guests of the Corporation of Hamilton. The municipality has controversially agreed to pay the cash-strapped NCBM — believed to be $1 million in debt — $100,000 in return for bringing more than 400 delegates to the Island.

But US news reports claim that, in previous years, the organisation “threw the party, but walked out on part of the tab” by failing to pay hoteliers and other vendors who had provided services for conventions.

According to a series of Fox 5 reports broadcast just before and after last year's convention in May, the NCBM had previously run up court judgments totalling more than $373,000.

In the Atlanta-based TV channel's report it was alleged the Marriot hotel chain was awarded $139,000 after the NCBM failed to pay a bill for its 2006 conference in Memphis, while in 2009, Vale Resorts was awarded $42,000 by the courts. And a company providing translation services at the 2012 convention was later awarded a judgement of $22,000. The organisation was also reported to owe $500,000 in US federal taxes.

And NCBM executive director Vanessa Williams was successfully sued by Jason Geter — business partner of rap artist TI — after she approached him in 2007 requesting a loan of $90,000. Despite assurances that the loan would be paid “quickly”, two NCBM cheques bounced before Mr Geter was forced to take legal action, the channel reported.

One Fox 5 broadcast tops a report with the question: “What do major hotel chains, the IRS, and the business partner of a top rapper have in common? Court records show the National Conference of Black Mayors owes all of them money. Big money.”

Reporter Dale Russell states in one of his reports: “The NCBM has left a trail of debt across the country — angry vendors, years of unpaid bills, bounced cheques, court judgments and tax liens totalling almost $1 million,”

In one report, Mr Russell approached Ms Williams about the debt, but she ducked out of a scheduled interview. She later claimed that the debts had been run up by a former NCBM member and the organisation was working to pay off 80 percent of monies owed within weeks. However, later news reports claim the debts were still outstanding.

Concerns about the financial credibility of the NCBM follow reports of a leadership split within the organisation.

Immediately after his election as NCBM president in May 2013, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson pledged to carry out a full audit of the group and asked Ms Williams to provide accounting records dating back several years. She was fired as executive director in September 2013 after failing to cooperate with the audit — and after bank statements revealed she spent more than $600,000 of NCBM funds on personal expenses over three years. NCBM accounts were used to pay for shopping sprees at high-end stores such as Tiffanys, Louis Vutton, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and also for private school tuition, as well as cash payments to Ms Williams and her husband. Ms Williams has defended these payments by pointing out that she has never received a salary from the NCBM.

Mayor Johnson later filed a writ against Ms Williams demanding that she hand over all financial records. Ms Williams filed a counter action, supported by some NCBM Board members, claiming that Mr Johnson's election was invalid. A US judge is expected to make a ruling on those claims this month.

Informed in January about the leadership split, Hamilton Mayor Graeme Outerbridge insisted that City Hall would carry out its due diligence to ensure it was working with a legitimate organisation before committing to hosting the conference.

Despite those assurances, and with the NCBM leadership question still to be decided by the courts, the Corporation has pressed ahead with plans for the convention through negotiations with the Williams faction.

Ms Williams — described in one report as “charismatic and smooth-talking” — has been instrumental in bringing this year's conference to Bermuda after meeting with Hamilton Deputy Mayor Donal Smith at last year's NCBM conference in Atlanta. The pair met again at an international mayors' conference in Colombia in September and the NCBM officially agreed to hold the conference on the Island in December. Ms Williams visited the Island last month at the expense of City Hall to examine conference facilities and was in Bermuda again last week.

The Corporation has now agreed to pay the NCBM $100,000 for holding its conference on the Island. And last week the municipality hosted a press conference alongside Chesilhurst, New Jersey mayor Michael Blunt, who claimed that he was the new NCBM president. He said that Mayor Johnson had been fired from the organisation and that Ms Williams had been reinstated as NCBM executive director.

Mayor Blunt denied that his organisation was insolvent and defended the planned $100,000 donation to NCBM coffers by the Corporation, claiming it was normal practice for a host city to fund conferences. Mayor Blunt was unable to provide details of how the $100,000 will be spent.

• See the Fox 5 reports at:



The logo of the National Conference of Black Mayors, which plans to hold its 40th annual conference in Bermuda this October.
<p>Call for plans to be put on hold</p>

Corporation of Hamilton councillor Larry Scott has renewed calls for the municipality to put on hold plans to host a mayors’ conference in the city later this year.

Councillor Scott said that questions over the leadership and financial stability of the National Conference of Black Mayors needed to be answered before the Corporation commits itself to hosting the organisation’s annual conference here in October — and paying $100,000 of ratepayer funds to the NCBM for the privilege of doing so.

Deputy Mayor Donal Smith, understood to be the driving force behind the convention, has defended the initiative, claiming that it will bring in much-needed revenue and give Bermuda overseas exposure. More than 400 delegates are expected to attend, including mayors from the US, the Caribbean, Africa and China.

But Councillor Scott described the event as a junket that would fail to bring in visitors and could ultimately prove an embarrassment for Bermuda and the Corporation.

“I keep asking the question, if the NCBM is $1 million in debt, where are they going to find the money to come to Bermuda at our prices?” Councillor Scott asked.

“Remember, they did not even have the money to conduct the forensic audit — that is why the court appointed a firm which was prepared to act pro bono. Now would you leave Senegal to come all the way out to Bermuda for a conference about black mayors in disarray?

“If this was a conference where some trade announcement was being announced by President Obama or some mutual international accord was in the offing I would expect to see and would be working myself to ensure it came off, but this just seems to be a junket.

“Do they know that they are having a conference in Bermuda is the first question. Notices probably have not gone out, there is nothing on the website, and I have not seen any agenda of the meeting setting out the objectives. And where are the mutual benefits to these very diverse groups much less Bermuda?”

Councillor Scott added that no one could legitimately claim to be in control of the NCBM — as Mayor Michael Blunt did last week — until Atlanta judge Christopher Brasher delivers his ruling on that question.

“My position is as stated from the outset publicly, and that remains the case even after seeing and hearing Mayor Blunt,” councillor Scott said.

“He obviously did not or has not appraised himself sufficiently of the case being brought by the very body he purports to represent. That case ruling by Judge Brasher in Atlanta, which we all now await answers to, will answer many of the question that he had difficulty addressing.

“Because of all this uncertainty I have asked — no, begged the Mayor and my colleagues to await the decision of the Atlanta court per Judge Brasher, before making a final decision about wanting to host the conference here until all those issues are clear, we know who we are dealing with and who we can contract with.”

Attorneys for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, elected president of the NCBM in May 2013 — who claims to know nothing about a Bermuda conference — have also urged the Corporation to exercise caution before moving ahead with conference plans.

“We appreciate and understand that the Mayor and Council of Hamilton are in a very difficult position in trying to ascertain what information from the competing parties is legitimate,” Valarie Allen of US law firm Ballard Spahr said.

“Ms Williams and Mr Blunt have no legal basis in asserting that they represent the NCBM; and nothing can be finally resolved in that regard until Judge Brasher’s the ruling is given.”

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Published March 03, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated March 03, 2014 at 12:49 am)

Claims of unpaid bills following mayors’ events

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