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Freedom to Backstab

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The tenacious Meyers is not the sort of man you would want doubting you. Even allies think “there’s something wrong with Michael,” as one puts it. “Yeah, I’m adamant—some say shrill,” he admits with a Foghorn Leghorn laugh. “Well, my voice was heard!”

He noticed that the copies were undated. He demanded an executed instrument, which was made available to him a few weeks later. That’s when the default became apparent. “He forces you into playing twenty questions,” Meyers tells me. “It was not the ACLU that anybody was accustomed to. That’s the shocker of all of this. Where’s the disclosure, the transparency, the forthrightness?”

Most directors took these developments as insignificant oversights, but a small number shared Meyers’s alarm. “If he had come to us and said, ‘I should have told you about this five months ago and didn’t,’ I would have thought, That’s not great, but he’s admitting it now. It’s not that big a deal,” says Wendy Kaminer, a Boston lawyer and writer who was on the board at the time. She and Meyers pushed for further clarification with the aggression of prosecutors.

Romero didn’t mention the scandal to Glasser until August. To prepare for his next round of grilling by the board, he took the train to Glasser’s summer home in Connecticut. Glasser says they strolled the beach at sunset as Romero laid out the narrative of events. Glasser had heard some of it already. Delince, after sending her memo, called him to ask if she had any obligation to tell board members herself, and he told her no. But one part of Romero’s chronology diverged from the history as Glasser understood it. He told Glasser that Delince wrote her memo because he asked her to.

“This is a tiny number of incidents that are raised over and over and over again. Even assuming, completely for the sake of argument, that every allegation made by this group is true, I would say, So what!”
—Nadine Strossen, ACLU board president

“I remember stepping on a clump of sand, trying not to stumble in astonishment, because I realized in that moment that he’s lying to me,” says Glasser, gripping a hand to his chest, Redd Foxx style. “He lied when it wasn’t even necessary. He lied the way you breathe, which is to say, unconsciously, and without being aware of it. I just remember being shocked. Here was my guy!”

He later added, “It was a shocking, pivotal point in my view of him. But if that had been the last thing he did, I would have brushed it off as something he was embarrassed about. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. I began to see that incident on the beach as a characterological pattern and not an aberration.”

Soon, another scandal of sorts arrived, from even further afield. A May 2004 article in The Wall Street Journal reported on a protest by nine elite universities against the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, which had inserted vague anti-terrorism language in grant contracts. To accept the funds, read the Ford contract, a recipient must abstain from anything that might be construed as promoting “violence, terrorism, bigotry, or the destruction of any state,” measures the universities considered overbroad and potentially censorious. Defending Ford in the article was an ACLU spokesperson who said that free-speech rights weren’t at risk because Ford was a private foundation and not a government office. The ACLU had accepted $136,000 from Ford under these conditions. “When I read that, I was appalled,” Kaminer remembers. “Of course there are free-speech issues—this specifically says what you can’t advocate.”

Kaminer circulated the article to the board and spearheaded a typically strident conversation about principles. She and others thought the ACLU should be protesting Ford, not defending it, while Romero and his board president argued that Ford funding was essential for the ACLU’s operation, this restriction notwithstanding.

There were two interesting things Romero did not reveal before the Ford situation was made public. One is that he had accepted a much more restrictive clause in another grant contract, with the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), a United Way–type fund for civil servants, which, according to the language of the contract, appeared to require the ACLU to check all employees against a government blacklist of possible terrorists. The other is that Romero was the one who, in his capacity as the nation’s top rights defender, had advised Ford to “parrot” federal law, which in this case meant the Patriot Act. “This is like the pope coming out in favor of abortion rights,” Kaminer quipped at the time.

Romero mentioned those facts only after lengthy cross-examinations in board meetings. “It’s always the same pattern,” says a board veteran who asked not to be named. “Somehow he slips and says something, and somebody pounces on it, usually Michael, and then he’s forced to reveal it.” A growing number of directors were losing all confidence in his leadership, but most rallied to his defense—galvanized in part by a shared distaste for the strident, bullying rhetoric of Kaminer and Meyers. “Their criticism was personal, relentless, and grossly excessive,” says Robert Remar, an Atlanta attorney who is one of Romero’s strongest defenders on the board. “I think it was a mistake to sign that grant. But I wouldn’t say one mistake in the history of an organization is fatal.”


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