May 14th, 2009 By | News | Posted In: News, Public Policy, Not-for-profit, NAACP

Chris Finney Serves Two Masters


Chris Finney must be feeling rather schizophrenic lately.

The local attorney and arch-conservative activist is offering his services free of charge to the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter, where he is chair of legal redress. His duties include assisting the chapter’s efforts at advancing the interests of the area’s African-American residents.

At the same time, Finney continues his legal work for ex-State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. and their political group, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). His latest effort there is a lawsuit trying to overturn the Ohio law prohibiting former state lawmakers from lobbying in Columbus for one year after they leave office.

Brinkman wants to be an unpaid lobbyist for COAST so he can persuade lawmakers not to give additional state funding to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located along Cincinnati’s downtown riverfront. Brinkman alleges the law infringes on his free speech rights and is discriminatory because it doesn’t prohibit ex-lawmakers from lobbying on behalf of state agencies or political subdivisions without a waiting period.

COAST opposes a proposed $3.1 million allocation for the Freedom Center.

After the Freedom Center opened in 2004, it reported a $5.5 million deficit in its first year as paid attendance didn’t reach estimates. Later the museum cut about $3 million from its annual budget and called on former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper to help raise $10 million for an endowment.

Also, Cincinnati City Council approved giving $800,000 to the museum in 2007 to help pay off $25 million in construction debt. During the past three years, the Freedom Center has received about $10 million in taxpayer money from various sources.

COAST has said the museum shouldn’t be dependent on taxpayer funding to remain open, but museum supporters note that several local attractions like the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Cincinnati Zoo receive public subsidies, adding that singling out the Freedom Center for criticism has racist undertones. Critics, however, reply that those organizations seek approval of tax levies from voters.

The Freedom Center commemorates the historic safe houses and secret routes, known as the Underground Railroad, that runaway slaves used on their way to northern free states in the 19th century. Many stops are located throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

COAST has made a veritable cottage industry out of criticizing the Freedom Center over the years, including reports about African-American exhibits bypassing the facility, the amount that museum executives are paid and holding swanky cocktail receptions for lawmakers.

“When the museum was originally promoted, it promised to bring one million visitors to Cincinnati from all over the world,” COAST’s Web site states. “Today, the Freedom Center attracts fewer than 62,000 paying visitors, and they are mostly children from the area forced to go there on school field trips. These visitors generate near-zero economic activity for the city because they come and leave on school buses, not stopping to spend additional cash.”

Some critics, notably local Democrats, allege that Finney is providing free legal services in return for Smitherman wooing black voters to join the local Republican Party.

Still, maybe we should have seen this unusual turn of events coming.

In April 2008, Smitherman told The Cincinnati Beacon that the museum needed to reach out to local organizations more and that it might be able to raise money if it did so.

“I have been very concerned about the Freedom Center’s financials and their approach on gaining new financial resources,” Smitherman told The Beacon. “Partnerships and collaboration are the keys to a successful strategy for the center. This includes grassroots institutions and grassroots people.”

In related news, local blogger Nathaniel Livingston Jr. is asking the IRS to investigate the NAACP’s local chapter for allegedly using its tax-exempt resources to intervene in the upcoming Cincinnati City Council elections.

During his weekly radio show on WDBZ (1230 AM), Smitherman recently urged NAACP members to oppose Democratic candidate Jeff Berding and to “vote down” the Democratic ticket. As a registered non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization, federal law prohibits the local chapter from directly or indirectly participating in a political campaign for or against any candidate.

05.14.2009 at 04:02 Reply
Kevin --- I'm dismayed that CityBeat gives free space to an organization that deliberately distorts information about the Freedom Center. First, let me post for the record that our attendance since opening in 2004 has averaged 180,000 per year --- nearly three times the number COAST claims. Second, the $3.1 million we are seeking from the Ohio General Assembly is for our education programs, which impact both the 50,000 to 60,000 K-12 students who visit the Freedom Center annually, and thousands more around Ohio. The COAST criticism should not obscure the very real progress the Freedom Center is making in the area of distance learning programs for Ohio schools. Our 2009-2011biennium request is heavily weighted towards strengthening and expanding our highly regarded online Underground Railroad history curriculum. These distance learning programs represent innovative new approaches to the teaching of important historical subjects, such as the Civil War and Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. School administrators and classroom teachers in Ohio are enthusiastic about our online content. Already, for example, Akron Public Schools has committed to bringing the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's digital learning project into its 22,000 student district for the 2009-10 academic year. Akron will work with the Freedom Center to develop a focused digital learning project targeting its 8th grade students and teachers. We’re also partnering with the University of Cincinnati in developing a semester long, graduate level course targeting teachers with tools and methodologies for using digital media to teach diversity and citizenship. The program will launch this fall and our goal is to make it available to each public college of education across the state. Simultaneously, the Freedom Center is offering teacher training institutes throughout the year. These institutes provide lesson plans and digital resources that are linked to our exhibits, such as the new “381 Days: the Montgomery Bus Boycott Story,” that opens on May 5. These are just a few examples (of many underway) that demonstrate the Freedom Center’s unique – and growing – educational impact in Ohio. They represent a cost-effective and innovative investment by the State of Ohio in education programs that enrich young people’s understanding of the lessons of the past and their relevance to contemporary issues. Bottom line: COAST's attacks on the Freedom Center are growing stale. And while it continues to rant, we continue to serve Ohio's school children, their teachers and the cause of educational excellence. Paul Bernish Chief Communications Officer The Freedom Center


05.14.2009 at 07:02 Reply
Smitherman's megalomania knows no bounds. This jack@ss has jumped into bed with one of the most radical right wing groups in our area. COAST and Finney are tied directly to the reprehensible goons at CCV, btw. Kevin, you failed to report the best part; Snitherman paid COAST $3,000 from the NAACP's general fund. Neither party will state what that money was for, but by coincidence COAST spent $5,000 on radio spots at WDBZ. Smitherman had thrice requested the NAACP to sponsor his show on that station, and the organization refused his request three times. Was Smitherman's donation of $3,000 of the NAACP's money to COAST a backdoor way for hi to spend NAACP money on his own show? Nate Livingston broke tis story and has done excellent work following up on it. Jason Haap has even started asking questions over at the Beacon. Meanwhile, Jason's buddy, Democrat-hating former star Justin Jeffre is still in bed with both COAST and Smitherman. How much longer will the national NAACP allow this disarray at the Cincinnati branch to continue?


05.15.2009 at 03:10 Reply
Kevin -- You forgot to include the smear campaign that COAST ran against minority-owned developer Dorian Development, the contractor on the Glencoe Apts. complex in Mt. Auburn that is usually cited as being "the only African American city contract". The Cincinnati NAACP has long been in support of this project and expanding the ranks of African-American-owned city contractors. COAST is acting to undermine both goals.


05.15.2009 at 09:58 Reply
Finney doesn't have two masters...he has three. Bar-Be-Q is paying his bills now too. http://bearmancartoons.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/bearman-cartoon-bar-be-q-the-organist/