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Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has decided that neither she nor her designee will attend future meetings of the Martin Luther King Jr. State Commission.
Toulouse Oliver and state Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, both board members by state statute, said there needs to be clarity about the setup and function of the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation.
If it is the official fundraising arm of the commission, then it is subject to the commission’s oversight; if it is a private entity, then it is in violation of the state’s anti-donation clause for apparently using the MLK Commission’s telephones, computers and website, Eichenberg said.
Further, it is not clear what funds may have been collected or distributed by the foundation.
The commission voted March 12 to hold a special session to address these and other issues. As of June 1, that session had not been scheduled.
Toulouse Oliver informed commission Chairman Oscar Robinson of her abstention decision in a May 3 letter copied to Attorney General Hector Balderas, State Auditor Brian Colón and others. In it, she said that if the special session was not scheduled in the following two weeks, her office would not be involved with the MLK State Commission until further notice.
According to Eichenberg, MLK Commission Executive Director Leonard Waites created the foundation in May 2017 within a year of taking over as head of the commission and in the aftermath of an embezzlement scandal involving the commission’s previous leadership.
As recently as September 2020, in a communication with the state Department of Finance and Administration, Waites referred to the foundation as the “fund-raising arm” of the commission, Eichenberg said.
In a previous letter to Bobbie Green, chair of the MLK Commission’s Ethics Committee, Eichenberg wrote: “To date, it is unclear what amounts have been donated to the foundation. It does not appear that any donated funds have been reported to the Commission” nor that any funds from the foundation have been disbursed in the prescribed way.
The president of the foundation is Nathan Waites, son of Leonard Waites.
Leonard Waites said his son’s work with the foundation is on a volunteer basis and is not a paid position. Further, he said, the foundation has never received any money from the commission, and the foundation’s only role since it became active was to raise funds for putting on the annual MLK Indoor Track Meet.
The MLK State Commission does not handle that money, he said.
Colón last December criticized the MLK Commission for failing to remedy a number of shortcomings highlighted in audits as far back as 2015.
The embezzlement scandal that rocked the MLK State Commission involved previous Director Kimberly Greene, the commission’s previous financial auditor, Cheryl Yazzie, and Charles Countee, then-executive director of eRead, a nonprofit that offers education and technology programs. eRead held and distributed funds on behalf of the MLK Commission.
All three pleaded guilty to various charges tied to offenses that happened from June 19, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2015. Greene, charged with the most serious of the offenses, pleaded guilty to violation of the Governmental Conduct Act; fraud over $500 but less than $2,500; embezzlement over $2,500 but less than $20,000; and conspiracy to commit embezzlement over $2,500 but less than $20,000.