published Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Tennessee Multicultural Chamber says money checks out

by Cliff Hightower
Walter Hitchcock, chairman of the board of directors for the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce, answers questions at a news conference Monday.
Walter Hitchcock, chairman of the board of directors for the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce, answers questions at a news conference Monday.
Photo by Tim Barber.
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The Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce accepted the resignation of former Executive Director Sherrie Gilchrist and answered all questions from federal authorities about its finances, the board's chairman said Monday.

"We hope the investigation will wrap up soon and our name is cleared," said Walter Hitchcock, board chairman for the chamber, whose primary goal is helping to grow minority businesses.

Hitchcock told reporters during a news conference that chamber board members sat down with an FBI investigator and a U.S. Housing of Urban Development investigator for three hours and explained how all the money was spent from a federal loan and grant. He didn't say when they had spoken with the investigators.

  • photo
    In this file photo, Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sherrie Gilchrist is seen during a business panel at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Board members also accepted the resignation of Gilchrist, who was the executive director of the organization since it opened in July 1999. A severance package has been promised to Gilchrist, he said. However, he would not elaborate on details of the package, saying it was a personnel matter.

Gilchrist was not forced out of her position, he said, but at the same time, there was some agreement between the board and Gilchrist that she should leave.

"Sometimes it's best to part ways and move on," Hitchcock said.

A second chamber employee also resigned. The organization is running daily operations with three volunteers instead of two full-time employees, he said. The chamber is searching for a volunteer interim executive director, Hitchcock said.

The organization also cut costs by moving from its $47,000-a-year office on Chestnut Street to an old school on South Highland Park Avenue that it is using for free.

"We've got to trim down to our fighting weight, get down to our lowest cost of operations and we're going to survive," board member Jerry Hanner Sr. said.

Hitchcock and Hanner led a nearly hourlong news conference in the chamber's new offices in the Hemlock School.

The chamber has been under scrutiny since early summer when a Chattanooga Times Free Press investigation showed inconsistencies between Chattanooga and Hamilton County budget documents. A city audit also questioned the chamber's management of city, state and federal funds. The FBI and HUD later stepped in to investigate the spending of a $545,000 HUD grant and $579,000 loan from the Chattanooga Community Development Financial Institution.

  • photo
    Multiple vacant lots are photographed Wednesday in the 400 block of MLK Blvd., leading up to the former Renewal Barber Shop at 423 MLK Blvd., seen in the background.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

The chamber bought two properties on M.L. King Boulevard with money from the Chattanooga Community Development Financial Institution. After not receiving regular payments on the loan, the institution foreclosed on the properties and is set to auction them off next week.

Hitchcock did not give details of how HUD and CCDFI money was spent, citing the ongoing investigations. He said the information was provided to investigators.

"I'm not saying there is a mismanagement of funds," Hitchcock said. "All monies have been accounted for."

Because of the financial discrepancies, the Chattanooga City Council and the Hamilton County Commission withdrew their $75,000-a-year contributions to the multicultural chamber.

The chamber is trying to assess its membership and its budget, Hitchcock said, but would not provide any details at this time.

He reiterated that the organization does not plan on folding. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce could take on some of the responsibility of dealing with smaller minority businesses within the community.

He also said he thinks at some point city and county relations could unfreeze and funding could be restored.

Chattanooga City Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd could not be reached for comment Monday.

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he is open for any discussions, but said he did not think the county would "ever get back to the point" of funding the multicultural chamber."

"It's really put a bad taste in our mouths," Henry said. "I'm not totally convinced we need two chambers."

Staff writer Judy Walton contributed to this report.

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328Kwebsite said...

This whole scandal has been an invented ploy foisted on the public by local Republicans who want to eliminate financial competition through government influence. It's obvious: local Republican lawmakers have openly profited off of violating the public trust.

It's amazing how many Republican country club socialists we have when it's time to squelch legitimate competition against Republican politicians in this area. We notice that many of them include Republican socialists like City Councilman Manny Rico, who has openly discouraged people from patronizing the Multicultural Chamber in favor of the Chamber of Commerce.

We're all aware that the Chamber of Commerce pays Republicans by funding their attack ads.

Trying to tell people that we should have only one chamber really means that the rich should force our businesses into not only voting, but spending their money, on the Republican Party.

Don't give in to these corrupt fearmongers who are trying to get people to pay a Karl Rove front organization in an election year.

Look to recent reports on NPR about how understaffing at the FBI cripples investigations into corrupt government officials. Once FBI agents were assigned to counter-terrorism duty, there was no funding to re-assign them to white collar crime. Republicans rail against having basic prosecutions of financial crime primarily because they're on the payroll.

The Multicultural Chamber is an organization worth having. It's also an organization that has posed a direct financial threat to Republican fundraising by competing with the Chamber of Commerce, a Karl Rove front organization.

The Multicultural Chamber of Commerce is interested in funding business. The Chamber of Commerce is interested in funding Republican stealthpacs. That is the only substance behind these fictional accusations of wrongdoing from local lawmakers.

We're not fooled. We have known all along how corrupt and self-serving our leaders, including the un-elected and self-appointed, have been. We enjoy the thought of having them removed from office during the next elections.

Do not vote for rich landowners who seek to give themselves a tax break and a fancy title. Hire, through election, lawful public servants who actually do the job of being a government leader.

The kind of leadership we're looking for does not include vilifying non-profits so that Republicans can collect more money for their front organizations.

September 27, 2011 at 1:40 a.m.
joneses said...
September 27, 2011 at 6:56 a.m.
slr3 said...

This is not an issue about Democrats or Republicans as best I can tell. It is an issue of theft. I don't buy the MC's explanation that all the money has been accounted for. Let's wait for the investigation to be completed and the FBI give the MC a clean bill.

September 27, 2011 at 7:26 a.m.
dao1980 said...

The money checked out huh? Where did it go when it left?

September 27, 2011 at 7:48 a.m.
rkskyking said...

Who did the MC buy the property from?

September 27, 2011 at 8:32 a.m.
ldurham said...

Good reporting. Now when are you going to tell us about the administration at the Times Free Press, and why your executive editor is suspended? Don't we have a Right 2 Know?

September 27, 2011 at 9:32 a.m.

Wow. My tinfoil hat is melting under 328k's assault.

September 27, 2011 at 9:33 a.m.
ChattanoogaVol said...

When are the indictments coming? Geez freaking louise.

September 27, 2011 at 1:57 p.m.
thedeltajew said...

wow!!! it takes the newspaper finding a redflag in the multi-chambers spending habits and a fbi/u.s.urban housing investigation into their spending to have the multi-chamber members scatter like dogs during a thunderstorm!!!! and now the chamber starts operating with volunteers and free rent after spending and/or possible swindling hundreds of thousands of dollars.90% of money on land/operating/salarys and 10% on programs sounds like somebody profited except those that really were suppose to!!!i hope the fbi/urban housing investigation gets so folks!!!

September 27, 2011 at 2:09 p.m.
brokentoe said...

cbtole said... Just hand over your checkbook, Whitey.

We don't want to confuse anymore than you already are, but blackeys brownies, yellowEES, *redEES8 pay taxes too.

Don't hurt yourself trying to figure it all out, though.

September 27, 2011 at 3:46 p.m.
potcat said...

A SEVERANCE CHECK, had'nt she done made a killing off this GiG!!

This Chamber and all Chambers should NEVER recieve Goverment Taxpayer MONEY!!!

September 27, 2011 at 4:04 p.m.
MasterChefLen said...

It's funny. The supporters of the center mention nothing of the fact that, from a financial operations standpoint, the center was run to benefit Sherrie Gilchrist as a salary and lavish spending on day to day operations. This is proven by the fact that center is now being run in a former church rent free. The fact that people actually want to restore funding to these bozos is amazing.

September 27, 2011 at 6:29 p.m.
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