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California State Bar Shaken by Personnel Issues Involving Two Black Women

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Debbie Manning (left) and Fredericka McGee (right)

In less than one month, the State Bar of California has been roiled in high-level personnel snafus involving two prominent Black California women. 

 

In July, the California State Bar offered Fredericka McGee, a respected California legislative attorney, the position of executive director. Then, in August, the organization which serves as an administrative arm of the State Supreme Court and is charged with protecting the public interest, reportedly rescinded that offer without an explanation. McGee has been a licensed attorney with the Bar for almost 30 years.  

 

Then, last week, Debbie Manning, a member of State Bar’s 13-member board — the only African American serving on the governing body — abruptly resigned midway through her term. Manning was appointed to a four-year term by the state Senate in 2018.  

 

Manning, a “non-attorney” member, was appointed to a four-year term by the State Senate in 2018. Previously, Manning was not only the first Black woman to join the Legislature’s Office of the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms in 1977, she was also the first woman to serve as Senate Chief Sergeant-at-Arms. She held that position from 2014 until 2017.  

 

Manning’s resignation came just one week after the Bar met to discuss the hiring of the next executive director with extended public comment in support of McGee after which the board went into closed session but did not report any decision or action. Manning did not give a reason for leaving. 

 

Powerful Support: State Leaders Defend McGee at Board Meeting  

 

At the Friday, Sept. 4 State Bar public board meeting, supporters urged the body to reconsider its decision and renegotiate with McGee for the executive director position. That meeting was delayed when an individual wrote the “n” word several times and other profanity directed toward Black people in the Zoom meeting chatbox, which caused the meeting to be delayed for almost an hour. 

Screenshot of the State Bar Zoom Board meeting September 4, 2020

Despite the delay, a diverse group of people spoke at the meeting in support McGee  supporters say a testament to her rapport with lawmakers; attorneys of all colors and backgrounds; business leaders; members of the African American community; leaders in major service organizations, and more.  Among them were representatives of the California Association of Black Lawyers, SEIU, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.  

 

Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), speaking on behalf of the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC), was the first speaker to address the board of trustees. 

 

Weber said, speaking on accounts of published reports, that McGee’s situation is one of the reasons the CLBC talks about the “increase of representation of people of color, particularly African Americans in all aspects.”  

 

Weber said the Bar’s alleged withdrawal “brought tremendous concern” to members of the CLBC. 

 

“(McGee) had accepted the position, was making efforts to move, change her residency, and basically move around for this position, and then all of sudden the position was withdrawn,” Weber said. “We stand united in requesting that you provide the state bar the best leader as possible, as we’ve always found that to be of the character and qualifications of Ms. Fredericka McGee.” 

 

In closing, Weber referenced the constitutional relationship between the Legislature and the State Bar. The Legislature annually authorizes a “fee bill” to allow the Bar to assess lawyers’ licensing fees, according to Ed Howard, a Sacramento public interest lobbyist and long-time State Bar watcher. 

 

A History of Turmoil and Mismanagement  

 

Over the years, the State Bar has been under scrutiny for some of its practices and the way its leaders have managed the organization. In 1998, then Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill that would’ve authorized the agency to charge lawyers in the state annual licensing fees to fund the Bar.  

 

A layoff of two-thirds of the Bar’s staff members was hanging in the balance and the group’s attorney discipline system temporarily shut down for lack of funds. Those issues were only resolved in 1998 after the state’s Supreme Court intervened. 

 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration vetoed another fee authorization bill, Senate Bill 641, in 2009. Schwarzenegger justified his action by basing it on a state audit that discovered irregularities in enforcing attorney discipline, embezzlement of $675,000 by a former employee, and prohibited disclosure of the rating of a potential candidate for the appellate bench. 

 

In a written message, the governor said the Bar’s scandals “cannot continue with business as usual.”  

 

“As the organization charged with regulating the professional conduct of its members, the conduct of the State Bar itself must be above reproach,” Schwarzenegger stated. “Regrettably, it is not.” 

 

In 2016, after the California Legislature did not pass a Bar dues bill, and the state’s Supreme Court had to step in to authorize the agency to collect interim dues. The American Bar Association reported on Nov. 16, 2016, that both Legislative houses were at odds about the bar’s “reform measures,” introduced by the Assembly. The issue was about a study of whether the bar should break into two parts, splitting the Bar’s attorney discipline abilities from its trade organization tasks. 

 

Last month, the Assembly and the Senate passed Assembly Bill (AB) 3362, a bill that would again authorize the Bar to collect fees from California attorneys and restrict its board of trustees from discussing issues about the Bar’s exams administration in seclusion. At the moment, Gov. Gavin Newsom is reviewing the bill. 

 

At the September 4th board meeting, Fabian Núñez, a former Assemblymember, who represented the 46th District in Los Angeles County and served as speaker of the Assembly from 2004 to 2008, highlighted McGee’s professionalism and praised her “level of dignity,”  depth of knowledge,” ability to “build relationships,” and “certainty of purpose.”   

 

Núñez said that within his nearly five-year tenure, McGee was his general counsel and he watched her juggle and manage legal matters of the Assembly, the rules committee, and judiciary issues.  

 

“It’s something unmatched in California,” Núñez said of McGee’s skill set. “Quite frankly, it’s unique because she also possesses the skills that are so important when you are managing a large organization such as the State Bar.”  

 

Gov. Newsom’s former Legislative Affairs Secretary, Anthony Williams also said in support of McGee, “When I heard that she was a candidate for the executive director for the State Bar, I was pleased and proud not only as a lawyer but also as a Californian who knows the important role that the State Bar plays in public protection and administration of justice. Fredericka understands that. I hope that you reconsider it, such a sensitive, personnel decision,” Williams said.  

 

The board of trustees’ duties includes developing the guiding policies and principles of the Bar. It comprises five lawyers appointed by the California Supreme Court, two lawyers appointed by the legislature, and six non-attorney members (four named by the governor).  

 

The State Bar’s Board of Trustees Responds 

 

The governing body’s chairperson Alan Steinbrecher pointed out that the makeup of the state bar is one of diversity and inclusion and at the end of the meeting sought to provide examples of two prior African American State Bar executive directors.  

 

“In my work with the state bar’s leadership team and with staff, I know that the commitment to diversity and inclusion is widely shared throughout the organization,” Steinbrecher said. “As our former executive director said, ‘We want diversity and inclusion to be built in and not built on.’ I also want to note that contrary to some comments we’ve received, the state bar has been previously led by two capable and talented African American women that served as executive directors.” 

 

Leah T. Wilson, another African American woman, served as executive director for two years before she surprised some when she left the role on Jan. 17 of this year. 

 

The Hon. Judy Johnson, also a Black woman, was the State Bar’s executive director from May 2000 to January 2011. Johnson is now a Superior Court Judge for Contra Costa County, first appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012. 

 

Before entering a closed session, the Bar’s board of trustees addressed the concerns of McGee’s supporters.   

 

“There has been some speculation about a particular candidate who has been considered for the executive director’s position,” Steinbrecher said. “We are not in the position to respond to specifics reported in the press because the executive director’s selection process is a confidential, personnel matter.”  

 

The executive director of the Bar leads the senior management team responsible for various programs. The position requires the executive director to answer to the board of trustees and advance its policies. 

 

McGee was in the process of transitioning out of her role as vice president of California government affairs and operations for the American Beverage Association (ABA). She worked out of ABA’s office in Sacramento. 

 

In addition, McGee is also the founding president of the Black Youth Leadership Project, Inc., a non-profit organization that offers interactive legislative and debate programs to African American high school students throughout California. 

 

Alice Huffman, the President of the California State National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a written statement dated Sept. 3 that McGee “has been recognized for her exemplary service by a multitude of organizations throughout the state and has a stellar reputation in the legislative and legal community.” 

 

“The California NAACP remains ready to stand with the California State Bar as we ensure a fair and transparent legal system at this pivotal time in our country as we address issues of social justice,” Huffman said in a statement  “Again, I wholeheartedly support the California State Bar in its efforts to complete the contractual process that started with Ms. McGee.” 

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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NNPA – Black Press w/ Hendriks Video Interview

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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