Wednesday, July 29, 2009

AKA Sues President Over Funds Use

President of black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha sued by members over funds, including $900,000 wax statue Suits says president of Chicago-based, national group also lavished $400,000 on herself
By Cheryl V. Jackson Staff Reporter/

Members of a prominent Chicago-based sorority are suing to oust their national president -- former Chicago Housing Authority comptroller Barbara McKinzie -- saying she misappropriated funds and commissioned a $900,000 wax figure of herself.

She also is accused of taking nearly $400,000 for personal expenses and arranging for a $4,000 monthly stipend to be paid to herself after she leaves office.

McKinzie, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and its current and some former board of directors members are targeted in a lawsuit filed by eight sorority members last month.

Among the allegations:
  • AKA directors violated the group's rules when they approved a four-year "pension stipend" for a total of nearly $192,000. They also purchased a $1 million life insurance policy for McKinzie.
  • McKinzie used the group's American Express card to buy designer clothing, lingerie and jewelry, then redeemed points racked up on the card to get a 46-inch HDTV, gym equipment and other items for personal use.
  • The president started a campaign to raise $100 million for an endowment fund to be run by her management firm -- BMC Associates.
McKinzie denied any wrongdoing Tuesday, saying the lawsuit was backlash to "enforced stringent financial standards as part of a professionalization of our organization."

"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."

McKinzie's likeness, along with one of the first national AKA president Nellie Quander, cost a total of $45,000, she said. All other figures are of group founders or first national presidents. The $900,000 "was allocated by the AKA board of directors to help defray overall expenses for our 2010 convention,' McKinzie said.

The wax figure of McKinzie is being prepped at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, where it will be in a growing exhibit of predominantly black fraternity and sorority representatives.

Parks, King, Keys, Donda West members
Founded at Howard University, AKA is the oldest predominantly black Greek-lettered sorority.

Members have included civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King; former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; musician Alicia Keys; astronaut Mae Jemison; poet Maya Angelou; actresses Jada Pinkett Smith and Roxie Roker; singer Gladys Knight; TV personality Star Jones; educator Marva Collins, and Kanye West's late mother, Donda West. Michelle Obama accepted honorary membership in 2008 but has yet to be inducted.

Mattel Inc. created the limited-edition AKA Centennial Barbie, the first Barbie based on any sorority.

The suit also alleges that McKinzie persuaded the board in 2008 to approve $250,000 -- later increased to about $375,000 -- in compensation to her for services rendered on behalf of the sorority. McKinzie's pay was based on her securing $1.6 million in cost savings to AKA, but there was no proof that there were any savings, the members said.

The suit contends the expenditures should have been approved by AKA members last year. It seeks to have the board removed and money returned.

Leadership also is accused of overcharging for the group's 2008 conference, one that observed Alpha Kappa Alpha's 100th anniversary.

The registration fee was doubled to about $500 per member for the 2008 meeting, which brought in about $13 million. The complainants say expenses for that gathering were about $9 million, and the surplus was spent at McKinzie's discretion.

The dispute is being played out on open-access Web sites and blogs, a rarity among the black heritage fraternities and sororities that typically value handling internal discord more discreetly.

In another dispute, members of Illinois-incorporated Zeta Phi Beta Sorority are contesting the 2008 election of comedian Sheryl Underwood as national president. A D.C. Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit seeking to unseat Underwood.

The ABCs of AKA
  • Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. has initiated more than 260,000 members since its 1908 founding at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
  • About 50,000 members are active in the group’s 950 chapters worldwide.
    At its 2008 centennial celebration in Washington, D.C., AKA set a Guinness record for the largest sit-down dinner, drawing about 20,000 guests.
  • Mattel Inc. created the limited-edition Alpha Kappa Alpha Centennial Barbie, the first Barbie based on any sorority.
  • The group settled a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit after the 2002 deaths of two California college students who drowned in the Pacific Ocean while attempting to pledge the sorority.
  • The group has offices at 5656 S. Stony Island Ave., and is incorporated in D.C. Its educational foundation, also being sued, is incorporated in Illinois.
  • Dues from active members range from $70 to $200 per year, and along with meeting registrations are the primary revenue source for the group’s operations.
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