Bill's Story: F.Y.I. on the Q.T.
Note: all names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of all parties...even those who may not deserve it.
I met Bill (not his real name) a couple years back at a rally in town. Smart, educated and only slightly eccentric(for a peace activist) Bill always found the work hard but rewarding and always worth it. And when another organization showed up to pitch in and help with an upcoming event he didn't think anything of it. That's what you're supposed to do in solidarity, right?
Soon the meetings became strained. Bill didn't think anything of it. Planning is always stressful and anything worth being emotionally invested in is bound to stir up strong feeling. But little things started to nag him: some people seemed to find themselves in positions of authority without any consensus or qualifications. Responsible questions about purpose and liability were treated with scorn. Soon Bill found his energy divided between peace making and begging hardworking people not to leave. He even found himself at odds with Steve, the manager of organization whom he'd always gotten along with. No matter how reasonable a concern was, it was spun as a personal conflict. Heroically Bill and four other organizers were able to pull off the event, with little or no help from the new organization. And what the new organization did do almost always has the effect of antagonizing or alienating the group's base. It did not help that this organization did not appear to understand what some terms actually meant in activism.
For instance the new group called for "mass civil disobedience". By definition this means protesting in illegal but nonviolent ways to draw attention to your cause. But when this was put into practice, members of the organization who called for this action reported activists to the police for doing the very thing they called them out to do. Subsequently these people were arrested and, in some cases, injured.
Like many, Bill was appalled. What had happened? After many angry conversations it became clear that what the organization had really wanted was a lawful protest demonstration. Then why didn't they say so? Did they know the difference? And if not, why not? Seasoned activists were part of this organization ; how could such a drastic misunderstanding have happened?
Then, in the course of gathering documentation, Bill found a strange statement among his organization's financial records. He had temporarily taken on managerial duties while Steve was out of town. Funds needed to be released and he wanted to take a quick account before the next meeting. They had always struggled for money, but always got by with fund raisers and the occasional anonymous donor. But, looking at the account history, he saw regular transfers of funds from a trust he had never heard of. Certainly none of the donors he knew. Cumulatively this cash flow was enough to take care of all their current debts, and cover their current expenses for the next six months. What particularly angered Bill was seeing a transfer dated the very day before a meeting four months earlier where they had brainstormed ideas to raise funds. All of this and they'd had plenty of money...somehow.
Bill called an emergency meeting of the officers, including the treasurer, Judy. Most people were confused but Judy was incensed that Bill had taken the liberty of looking through the groups private records without permission. When Bill pointed out he'd had permission and produced the email from Steve proving this, Judy changed the subject: why was Bill complaining the group had money? He should be happy. His point, echoed by many, was that until now the group had no idea they had this money and had been struggling unnecessarily for months, possibly years. What was this trust, Bill demanded? The group had a right to know who was apparently bankrolling them.
The meeting devolved into a shouting match. Most people sided with Bill or tried to play the peace maker; Judy refused to budge eventually calling Bill a provocateur. He was stunned. It was quickly decided by calmer heads that they should wait until Steve came back before trying to make a decision. Most wanted to believe it was a big misunderstanding.
But Bill felt this was something more than a misunderstanding. On a hunch, he stayed up all night copying as many relevant records he had access to about this trust. His hunch was right. The following morning not only was his access to finances revoked, but he found an angry email from Steve. Why was Bill snooping through the past accounts? Steve demanded. He was only given access in case funds needed to be approved. Then why didn't you ask Judy? Bill wondered. Steve said as Bill knew, they needed two signatures on the checks. That did not mean Bill was in anyway authorized to do a unilateral audit. Bill ignored this and instead asked about the trust. Who are they? What do they do and how long have they been giving the group money?
Steve didn't respond to this email. Instead he started sending an email around to the group claiming Bill had tried to access unauthorized funds. Bill did not hear about this until he came to the meeting a week later and felt everyone eying him suspiciously. Another shouting match ensued. Steve and Judy seemed united, with Judy now suggesting Bill had threatened her at the emergency meeting. That was the point Bill left saying: "I'm sorry you think you were threatened. I did not threaten you. I asked you to explain the financial accounts and you refused to. However, since you have stated you feel threatened by my presence I will leave and we can discuss this with a mediator instead."
Judy looking stunned. He'd never liked her. Many people had left the group over the years because she could be charming one minute then cold the next. As he walked to his car, he realized Judy never lost any of the battles she'd started; the people always left. Laughing at the irony, Bill drove away from the meeting place. He would never return again as a member of that group.
Months later he would return as a plaintiff. He tried to put it behind him and get on with his life. But he was dodged by depression and anger. He'd given three years of his life to working for peace and justice. He felt betrayed, and that was in addition to the group's completely avoidable confrontation with the police and the ensuing legal fallout. He would pass a couple of his old members at hearings and was pleasantly surprised that most of them held him no ill will. It was during this time that he heard rumors that Judy was spreading that he was a mentally imbalanced thief making outlandish accusations against the group. This was something she would warn new members about. Others would protest, but she'd say that new evidence had come to light but she didn't want to go into details.
The charges of mental imbalance struck Bill as laughable and pathetic. But he took the matter of being called a thief seriously. He dealt with funds for a living and if ever he needed a new position he was not about to let Judy make that process any harder. They lived in a fairly small city and word could spread fast in their circles.
He consulted an attorney who was not sure if he had a case yet for defamation. What impressed the attorney was the documentation that Bill had made about the finances before he left. Thanks to past fund raising efforts, Bill was able to prove that he and many others had been deceived about the organization's true state of finances. At his attorney's request he asked members he was still on good terms with their recollections of past fund raisers. Word got around. Steve emailed Bill demanding he stop lying about the group being funded by the mob. Judy found time to send an email around to the group, cc'd to Bill, calling him a deranged lunatic probably working for the FBI.
Bill forwarded both these emails to his lawyer. He was advised to block Steve and Judy's emails. Bill did so. Then the financial documentation was referred to the DA. It looked to Bill's attorney that maybe there was an organized criminal element to the finances. The trust in question had no known criminal connections. But it did have connections...to a handful of other peace groups Bill had never heard of scattered throughout the United States. Bill was being scapegoated, his attorney explained, probably because of his knowledge of these finances. What they couldn't figure out was, if this trust was legal, and was funding real peace groups as appeared to be the case, why did they act as if it was a dirty family secret?
Bill received no more email's from Judy or Steve, but a couple people who finally left the group did forward him emails where Judy was telling stories on a private list about how he was out there disrupting activism and how he'd walked away with $500.00 of the group's money.
That was it. A cease and desist order was sent. Soon after, the DA found enough evidence to start looking into the affairs of both Judy and Steve. They were found out to have shared Bill's private contact information, thus explaining some mysterious emails he'd assumed to be spam. They also seemed to be indirectly responsible for the theft of his mail at one point; some over-zealous soul took their warnings of a FBI agent to heart and decided to take it on themselves to open his mail to see who he was really talking to. One was a bill, the other, a letter from a relative. Judy and Steve found themselves facing a defamation and invasion of privacy suit.
Until then they had been claiming they were victims of a "hate campaign". Now they tried to say it was all a misunderstanding and they wanted to talk to Bill. The last thing Bill was going to do was get anywhere close to these two outside of a court of law. Bill's attorney agreed; given their history, any attempts to mediate independently would muddle the case. He did think that an official mediation might help. At the very least it would show their good faith in wanting to resolve this issue outside of court. Reluctantly, Bill agreed.
Bill's attorney contacted Steve and Judy with this offer. They balked. Why did it have to be official? Couldn't they just talk? Bill's attorney patiently explained that no, after slandering and libeling Bill, an informal discussion was out of the question. They argued but agreed to go. A meeting as arranged. They never showed.
Bill was irritated. If they weren't going to do mediation that was fine. He just wanted to get the rest of it over. He'd just met someone and was reconsidering the whole case. If it wasn't for his professional reputation he may well have dropped it.
Then, a week before they were set to go to trial, a law firm contacted Bill's lawyer. They were representing Steve and Judy. They were prepared to settle out of court. And they made a "very reasonable offer".
Bill's attorney advised him to take it. Bill didn't argue.
The group Bill used to belong to still exists, but Steve is no longer the manager. To anyone who asks, Steve says he's done organizing. Judy was forced to resign as treasurer and, soon after, left the group; no one has heard from her in months.
The other organization lost all credibility in the eyes of rank and file activists, who were vindicated months later when all charges were dropped against those arrested.
Bill's engaged now. He even goes to a rally here and there, but he's very careful of who to trust. He's thinking of starting a group with some of the old members , but doesn't want it to take over his life again. He does wonder about the trust and if it still funds the group he used to be part of. If anything nags him, it's that part. He sometimes thinks part of the reason for the settlement offer was to keep the trust's name out of public scrutiny that would come with a court case.
All of this has made him feel strongly about fiscal transparency. If he's to be part of a new group, they must make financial statements completely transparent. So far his friends agree.
Will he return to peace activism? Time will tell.
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