Nonprofit seeks stability after firing ex-leader
When sexual assault allegations went public against Portland nonprofit leader Charles McGee on Feb. 6, the board of Portland nonprofit Black Parent Initiative was cautious, placing him on leave pending an investigation.
But one week later, despite his "unequivocal" denial of the public claims, they fired McGee when they learned of a separate, non-public complaint of sexual harassment by Jhaizmine Smith, who was then 24, the Portland Tribune has learned.
The problem? BPI's volunteer board members were never told about Smith's November 2015 complaint until long after she'd quit. After investigating, all five board members resigned in December 2016 over McGee's handling of the matter — or lack thereof.
And then the new board members recruited to replace them were never told about any of it.
Smith's story shows the difficulties that victims of alleged harassment can face at a small nonprofit. It also adds to the turmoil around BPI, even as members of the board grapple with keeping their organization's services to the community going.
Smith, now 26, had already contacted the Tribune about McGee before the assault allegation made by another woman became public. The Tribune has reviewed documents concerning her complaint and substantiated key aspects of her story with acquaintances as well as the current and former BPI boards.
McGee and his lawyer, Edie Rogoway, declined to provide responses to questions or otherwise comment.
The BPI board announcement of McGee's termination had referred to Smith's complaint without naming her. After being contacted by the Tribune with Smith's story, board members issued another statement.
"The Board is committed to making sure nothing like this can happen again. It is the Board's top priority that BPI is a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment for everyone connected to the organization, in addition to continuing to serve the community."
Smith said changes need to be made to ensure no more behavior occurs that is "just wrong.
"I would not subject myself to that kind of treatment from any organization, no matter their status," she said, of her decision to quit.
Confided in mentor
When Smith entered the Americorps Vista national service program in the summer of 2015, she hoped it would help her enter the working world and also help her financially. Most importantly, she wanted the chance to work at BPI, a group that supports low- to moderate-income African-American families with birth assistance, parenting resources and advice on navigating the daunting education bureaucracy.
For Smith, the assignment was personal, as she had benefited from similar social work. A graduate of Jefferson High School, vice president of her class and three-sport athlete, she participated in a mentoring program through Self Enhancement, Inc.
"That's one of my superstars, man," said David Allen, her mentor at SEI. Despite adversity in her life, he added, Smith "kept fighting, she's very tenacious, and just a hard-working young lady."
Allen confirmed that Smith confided with him about the alleged harassment on multiple occasions. "I trust and believe that anything that she said happened, happened," he said. "She's very credible."
A former beauty contestant and member of the Jefferson High Rose Festival Court, Smith says she immediately drew attention from McGee, the cofounder and president of BPI, after beginning there in August 2015.
He at first commented flirtatiously on her appearance and that she was a single mother without a man to help support her, she said. But the comments got worse when nobody else was around.
The message was, "where's the man in my life," she recalled. "It progressed to (McGee saying) 'I've been told I've done great things with my body.'"
Smith said she immediately told him his comments were inappropriate, and McGee would always respond that she had misinterpreted him.
But he did not stop, seemingly viewing her resistance "as a challenge to continue to pursue," she said.
Within the first six weeks of her time at BPI, he talked to her about taking a permanent job there. On guard from his earlier comments, she said she would prefer to finish out her Americorps term and then decide.
Then, at a four-day staff retreat in mid-October at the beach in Seaside, she said she noticed McGee following her as she headed back to her room late one night.
Nervous from his past comments, she urged him to go back to the group. He didn't. Concerned for her safety, she sat on a bench near the entrance to the beach. McGee sat next to her, she said, and alluded to hiring her permanently as well as talked about her petite figure and his sexual prowess. She says he asked who was "fixing her needs" that night and graphically expressed his desire to have sex with her. She reminded him he was married, saying, "Well no, I think you should be fixing your needs with your wife, not here,'" Smith recalled.
She rejoined a group of coworkers and eventually made her way back to her hotel room.
She told her mentor, Allen, of the incident not long afterward, he confirmed.
Back at BPI, Smith told her supervisor and explained that she had been wearing hoodies and jeans lately in order to avoid McGee's attention. Her supervisor urged her to submit a written complaint.
Smith feared that speaking out against the politically connected McGee could hurt her career, but reluctantly agreed.
She submitted her complaint on Nov. 21, 2015, writing, "I am concerned and I do not believe I am the only one impacted by this issue, this is why I have brought this to your attention."
Her supervisor told her leadership said the matter was being handled, and they'd get back to her in six weeks.
That did not happen. Instead, she learned that her complaint had been passed around among leadership, including McGee. She heard comments from coworkers saying, "Oh, that's just Charles."
Meanwhile, he began being dismissive of her, or outright ignoring her when she would introduce him to people, Smith said.
In March, losing patience with what seemed like a hostile work situation, she finally quit.
"That's not me, I don't quit things," she said.
It was not a decision she made lightly for other reasons as well.
As a result of resigning before her Americorps stint was up, Smith forfeited the rights to a year of federal employment guaranteed by the program, as well as nearly $6,000 from Americorps to pay for a portion of her student loan obligation.
Long wait for contact
Emails show that not until May 2016 was she contacted by a man who supposedly was conducting an independent investigation of her complaint. It came to nothing that she could tell.
She later heard he was a BPI contractor who the board thought was being paid to help prepare a strategic plan — an account confirmed by Dara Wilk, the former BPI board vice chair.
Though Smith said she was told that the BPI board was made aware of her complaint, board members actually did not learn of her complaint until June 2016, seven months after she made it, Wilk said.
It launched its own investigation, interviewing her and allowing her to confront McGee. She asked for his resignation, but he denied wrongdoing.
In the end, the entire five-member board decided to resign collectively effective Dec. 23, 2016, citing the delay in being informed of the complaint against McGee, and his resistance to their investigation, Wilk said.
The outgoing board prepared a memo recounting their experience for McGee's personnel file so any new board members would be informed.
Unbeknownst to them, that would not happen for more than a year.
Meanwhile, frustrated that nothing was done, Smith contacted a lawyer in April 2017, only to learn the deadline to file a lawsuit had passed months before.
In January 2018, she reached out to the Tribune, having read an article about a stalking complaint filed against McGee. In it, a woman similarly described him as not taking no for an answer, and feeling that he was invulnerable due to political connections and lawyers.
"After hearing about his past behaviors and the possibility of other women having similar experiences, I realized this is a pattern," she said, explaining her decision to speak out publicly.
Asked detailed questions about Smith's story, McGee did not respond.
Nonprofit kept operating
BPI kept operating through 2017, apparently without a board, for nine months after the previous board resigned. Then a new board was installed in the fall.
Earlier this month, the new BPI board, headed by Chair Martin Jones, learned of McGee's abrupt decision to drop out of the race for county board, announced Feb. 6.
The news was promptly followed by the Willamette Week article that described sexual assault allegations. More details appeared in the paper the following day, recounting assault allegations made against McGee by two women. Portland police are investigating.
The board placed him on leave Feb. 6 and checked his personnel file, where they discovered documentation of Smith's complaint. After obtaining more documents about how McGee handled it, they fired him on Feb. 14.
Now, the new group of board members is scrambling to keep BPI going, holding a fundraiser on Thursday night.
And there are a lot of people rooting for it.
Wilk, the former board vice chair, says the nonprofit fills a vital role, and she hopes the controversy around McGee doesn't hurt it.
Allen, Smith's mentor and longtime Portland social worker — a former nonprofit CEO himself — says he'd hate to see BPI go away. Whatever happens with McGee, "don't let that stop the rest of the great work that they've been doing," he said.
Smith for her part, said that as long as changes are made to better address complaints like hers, "I think it should keep going." Of McGee, she said,"I don't think his actions should affect the resources and services that they can give. I think they are an essential part of the black community."