By Elizabeth Perry
Community members fear they’ve been scammed out of about $3,000.
Checks earmarked for the launch of an NAACP Chapter in McKees Rocks were cashed in June of 2021 even though chartering committee members were told their application for branch status is still under consideration.
Gina Beavers, president of the NAACP Chartering Committee in McKees Rocks, suspects the membership packet she assembled, and the membership checks it contained, never reached NAACP headquarters.
In June 2021, Beavers gave the packet to then-president of the NAACP East Chapter, and Pennsylvania State Conference President Ken Huston. About a year later, July 5, 2022, he was charged with stealing nearly $194,000 in donated NAACP funds for personal use.
“(It) should have been something positive that just got mixed up in something bizarre,” Beavers said.
Local nonprofit executive directors Denise Zellous of Zellous Hope and Cindy Haines of Focus on Renewal launched a membership drive to open a McKees Rocks branch of the NAACP, Beavers said. Haines said interest in the idea had long been there.
“The membership drive started before the pandemic set in and was kicked off by setting up outreach and engagement information tables at several large scale events as well as a door to door or "walkabout" campaign,” Haines said.
To become an official branch, 100 active, paying members were needed, and Beavers said Zellous and Haines were able to reach that goal. Annual memberships are $30 for adults and $10 for youth.
“The conversations about starting a newly formed chapter began in earnest January 2021 through members of the Grow Sto-Rox Collaborative,” Haines said.
After the 100 memberships were collected and the group started holding meetings, Beavers joined the effort. More than a year ago, she was nominated as president of the chartering committee and Kim Rogers, an employee at Focus on Renewal became the secretary.
“We had what we needed to submit to a national branch,” Beavers said.
They contacted Huston because of his experience, and the fact he lived nearby in Monroeville. Beavers said he attended some of their initial meetings.
In the summer of 2021, Beavers said she and Huston worked to get all the application paperwork together along with the membership checks.
“Ken Huston told me that I should hand the packet over to him and he would take it to the national conference where they determine whether or not chapters become branches,” Beavers said.
In June 2021, she gave Huston the packet and he said he was bringing it to the national convention.
“We were not given branch status,” Beavers said.
A month or so later, Beavers was pulled into a Zoom meeting in which she had to listen to Huston defend himself against some unspecified wrongdoing.
“He cried on the call,” Beavers said.
In the aftermath of the Zoom call, Huston was not removed from NAACP leadership.
In late fall of 2021, Beavers became concerned about the status of their application.
Rogers said Diana Roberston, second vice president of the Pennsylvania State Conference and Huston kept reassuring them the application was in progress, but there was a problem with the way the map apportioning out the McKees Rocks territory was written causing a delay.
“We knew there was a problem with our map, we didn’t know what that meant. I kept being under the impression the map was the problem, we’ll just ride it out,” Beavers said.
When they asked Huston what they could do to resolve the hold-up with the application, Beavers said he’d reply, “You don’t have to be a branch to do civil rights work.”
“Time marches on, and there’s just no word about our status,” Beavers said.
Beavers said she worried the checks would become invalid. The members of the committee continued to meet, but were hampered by a lack of funds and a lack of official status.
Beavers called NAACP headquarters and was told it was highly unusual for someone to bring the packet in person as the documents were supposed to be mailed in and there was no record of their branch status request.
Rogers and Beavers said they feared their membership checks had been stolen. These membership checks were written in April of 2021. There was a total of more than $3,000 in membership fees–two collective checks written by Focus on Renewal for $2,500 and $500 and a few personal checks written by individual members.
“Since the checks were Focus on Renewal checks, I was able to check with our finance department. They'd been cashed in Monroeville at a PNC,” Rogers said.
Huston is a Monroeville resident.
The checks had been cashed in June 2021, Beavers said.
Beavers said she called Robertson again, who assured her there was nothing wrong.
Huston was arraigned on July 5 before Judge Jeffrey Herbst for two counts of theft and four counts of fraud. Allegheny County Police conducted an 11-month investigation into Huston, which was tipped off by an anonymous letter, according to a press release. Huston was still president of the NAACP East Chapter at that time.
Repeated inquiries to the NAACP about this situation yielded the following response: “Thank you for your inquiry regarding the Pennsylvania State Conference. These allegations are very serious. As this is now a criminal matter, we will not provide comment during the pendency of the lawsuit.”
Robertson said during a Sept. 20 phone interview she was certain the application for the McKees Rocks Chartering Committee was under consideration, though she could not specify whom she spoke to at the NAACP that confirmed the application had been received.
“I know that they have it, we do know that. In inquiring to the status it was stated they do have it and they’re reviewing it,” Robertson said. “It has been the pandemic that held it up.”
Robertson insisted Huston sent the packet by certified mail, though she did not have a receipt for the packet, had no verbal confirmation it was received and did not have an email confirmation. She said she didn’t have the name of the person she followed up with, but said she followed up a year before to check the status.
“It’s very difficult to get answers, there’s a whole new crew of people over at national that I can’t even tell you who they are. We know national office received it, that was over a year ago, I don’t even know how they get their mail,” Robertson said.
Robertson said there had not been an in-person meeting for two years.
Huston said during a Sept. 20 phone interview the application packets were never sent via certified mail, which is why he could not produce a receipt for the application packet. He said he knew the application was received, but he’d never spoken to anyone to confirm it was received.
“There’s no one you speak to. The packet goes to the national units. The packet is put together, it is submitted to the national office that submits it to the national charter,” Huston said. “There’s no one to speak to. That’s not how it works.”
When asked if he cashed any of the checks submitted by the McKees Rocks NAACP Chartering Committee, Huston said: “There was one check sent relevant to the packet from the state conference.”
He declined to elaborate.
The whole situation has left the chartering committee at loose ends.
“In the meantime, we're still not a charter. We don't really know where to go from here,” Rogers said.
Beavers said the new president who replaced Huston has not contacted them about their application.
“It’s heartbreaking to think all the work of people going above and beyond who wanted to make a difference got nothing for their effort,” Beavers said.
Haines does not want to give up on their efforts to start an NAACP chapter in McKees Rocks.
“We have the moral imperative to continue with the work we started, despite the challenges encountered with the chartering process to date," Haines said.