A resident has filed a complaint with the city's Law Department, alleging that Christopher Smitherman’s dual role as a Cincinnati city councilman and president of the NAACP’s local chapter constitutes an abuse of corporate powers.
In his complaint, resident Casey Coston states that the NAACP’s status as a 501(c)(4) organization under the federal tax code allows it to lobby City Hall and participate in political campaigns and elections without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Such activities are a conflict of interest with Smitherman’s council duties, Coston alleges.
The letter was sent today to City Solicitor John Curp by J. Thomas Hodges, Coston’s attorney. It asks Curp to review the matter and also seek an injunction preventing Smitherman from serving as chapter president. Further, it wants Curp to seek an advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission.
In a statement from Coston attached to the letter, he writes that Smitherman’s dual roles “raises serious questions of irreconcilable and impermissible conflicts of interest as it relates to his duties on City Council. Moreover, to allow him to continue in this capacity would represent an abuse of corporate powers and may be contrary to the applicable provisions of the Ohio Ethics Law, ORC 102.01(A)(1) et.
Also in the letter, Hodges wrote, “The NAACP is an important institution in our nation and the city of Cincinnati. My client holds such (an) institution in the highest regard and has the utmost respect for its mission and role in the community. Neither the city of Cincinnati nor the NAACP’s integrity or authority should be compromised by conflicted leadership. Therefore, it is imperative that the city of Cincinnati investigate and take action to alleviate my client’s concerns on behalf of all citizens of the city of Cincinnati.”
Smitherman served a single term on City Council from 2003-05 as a Charterite, but was defeated in his reelection bid. He was elected president of the NAACP’s local chapter in April 2007, after an election fraught with controversy. He has since been reelected to that position several times.
Smitherman rejoined City Council as an independent after November’s election, finishing in eighth place to win a spot on the nine-member group.
A financial planner, Smitherman, 44, lives in North Avondale. In recent years, he has forged an alliance with the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), an ultra-conservative group, and has tried to block the city's streetcar project.
In 2009, Smitherman collected enough signatures to place an issue on the ballot that would've required a public vote on any streetcar expenditures; it failed 56 percent to 44 percent. Last year, he placed an issue on the ballot to block all passenger rail projects in the city for the next decade; it failed 52 percent to 48 percent.
CityBeat called the NAACP’s national office in Baltimore for comment. A spokesman referred the inquiry to the Rev. Gill Ford, the NAACP’s national director for unit capacity building. A message left with Ford hasn’t been returned.
In an online article from August, writer Ishton W. Morton stated that the NAACP’s rules allow that “when Smitherman is elected to council, he will tender his resignation to the Cincinnati NAACP Executive Committee for them to accept or reject. If they reject his resignation, he would be able to resume his role as president.” He has since resumed the role.
Smitherman has garnered much controversy for his actions during the past few years, including for the threats he made to people attempting to photograph him at a public hearing in council’s chambers last May.