When the former president of the National Organization for Women, Toni Van Pelt, resigned under a cloud of criticism this summer, many members expected to never hear from her again. What they didn’t know was that their former leader had received a six-figure payment and would resurface again, months later, as the leader of his national chapter.
Documents obtained by The Daily Beast show that NOW’s national board offered Van Pelt $ 400,000 to resign in August, after more than a dozen current and former employees accused her of racist behavior and intimidation. The deal also allowed him to remain a member in good standing, opening the door for him to serve as vice-president of his local in Florida.
“It was all a fiasco,” Cynthia Harris, recently elected Florida board member, told The Daily Beast. “Here is a woman who didn’t even recognize the fact that there is a problem and she is still there.
She added, “She has shown, by taking another leadership role in this state, that she is no different from Trump.”
Van Pelt, National NOW, and the West Pinellas NOW Chapter did not return requests for comment.
A Daily Beast investigation released this summer found Van Pelt had been accused of allowing racism to run rampant across the organization by more than 15 former NOW employees and interns, as well as its former vice president. As a result of this investigation, six other former board members and employees – including Christian Nunes, the vice-president at the time – came forward to accuse Van Pelt of disrespecting and ignoring the women of color and make callous racist statements. Within weeks, an overwhelming majority of state chapters called on Van Pelt to resign.
Van Pelt tendered his resignation on August 14, citing “health reasons”. A national office investigation ordered by the board of directors at the time revealed “governance issues and evidence of a toxic work environment”, but concluded that “the allegations of racial discrimination and retaliation did not were unfounded ”.
The severance agreement includes over $ 180,000 in salary maintenance, $ 13,500 in time off, $ 10,000 in moving expenses and $ 35,000 to cover the breach of the lease of Van Pelt’s house in Silver Spring, Maryland. It also includes severance pay of nearly $ 155,000 – money that members say could have been used to further the goals of the advocacy group, not to pay a former executive.
Emails obtained by The Daily Beast show that Jocelyn Morris, the only black woman in the board at the time, vehemently opposed the deal.
“We should never have rushed this process like we did,” she wrote in an email to the rest of the board. “We have done our members a favor and it may be too late to fix it.”
She added, “In a rush to get Toni to step down, we allowed her to rape NOW and laugh all the way to the bank.”
The investigation and deal appear to have been overseen by Elaine Wood, vice president of consulting firm Charles River Associates. In an email to council members after the deal was signed, Wood reminded them that they could not comment beyond a formal three sentence statement. “Under the terms of the separation agreement, each board member is required to respond to requests for further information with a ‘no comment’ statement,” she said.
To the women of color who organized to have Van Pelt withdrawn, the deal felt like a slap in the face.
“It looks like she was rewarded for her bad behavior,” said Triana Arnold James, Georgia chapter president. “It’s a bit like a parent saying, ‘Go to your room,’ but in your room you have the television, the phone and the games.”
Kolieka Seigle, the California chapter president, said she was reprimanded by council members for asking for more information on severance pay and the investigation. She was particularly upset that no written report on the findings of the investigation had been made public to heads of state sections or to all members.
“There is no record at NOW for these performance issues and these disturbing and racist actions,” she said. “As a member, what do we pay?”
Members were also irritated that Van Pelt was allowed to take another leadership position just months after leaving office. A list of officers obtained by The Daily Beast shows that Van Pelt is vice president of the West Pinellas NOW section, directly under BJ Starr – a NOW member who has been accused of publicly identifying himself as a woman of color for the first time earlier this year in to mark a seat on the National Council.
Arnold James said the way Van Pelt’s resignation and more general complaints of racism at NOW were handled made her uncertain about her future in the organization.
“It’s really hard to be a part of it because we’ve never really addressed the toxic environment,” she said. “You think the problem is solved, but it is not solved because we have never addressed the underlying problem, which is racism.”
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