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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.

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