A major corporate donor to the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce said Thursday it would pull funding temporarily to the chamber, which faces two federal investigations and questions about its financial dealings.
Mary Danielson, spokeswoman for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said the company is committed to diversity and empowerment as advocated by the chamber.
“However, we are temporarily suspending our funding of the [Multicultural] Chamber pending the outcome of the investigations into its finances and operations,” she said.
The Multicultural Chamber has been under fire since a city review described its possible financial mismanagement, extravagant salaries and travel expenses and questionable land deals. The review was spurred after a Chattanooga Times Free Press investigation showed discrepancies in the chamber’s requests to the city and county for financial support.
This week, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began inquiries into the chamber’s finances and activities.
Danielson said BlueCross BlueShield provided financial and in-kind support.
Other companies that sponsor the Multicultural Chamber took a more cautious approach Thursday.
The Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce website lists seven private companies as “Corporate Champions:” AT&T, EPB, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Coca-Cola, Volkswagen Group of America, Erlanger Health System and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Gary Davis, Coca-Cola spokesman, said his company supported the group for a number of years and already has given it money this year. Coca-Cola is not considering withdrawing its sponsorship, he said.
“What we do going forward depends upon what happens,” he said.
VW spokesman Guenther Scherelis said earlier this week that decisions on future sponsorship would be made toward the end of the calendar year.
TVA and Erlanger officials said they have given the chamber annual donations of $5,000, but they will await the outcome of the current investigation before deciding on future funding.
EPB spokesman Danna Bailey said her organization has sponsored tables at luncheons and other chamber events, but she couldn’t say whether that support will continue.
Multicultural Chamber Executive Director Sherrie Gilchrist was out of the office Thursday and did not respond to a request for comment.
Some Chattanooga and Hamilton County elected officials also distanced themselves Thursday from the chamber.
County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said “there is no sentiment at all” to continue giving the chamber $75,000 a year in funds.
On top of that, he said he thinks the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce or a similar organization should be encouraging minority business development rather than the Multicultural Chamber, whose stated role is to help minority-based businesses within the community and to encourage minority-business growth.
“You’re probably going to see another entity,” Henry said.
City Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd also has requested other options for minority business development, including work by the larger Chamber or a like-minded organization or the Chattanooga Urban League.
Ladd said it shouldn’t take long to find such an organization.
“I think we’ve already started a dialogue,” she said.
Ladd said Thursday that investigations by the FBI and HUD could take months, even up to a year, to be completed.
The city and county each canceled allocations of $75,000 to the Multicultural Chamber after the Times Free Press investigation, but the City Council voted this week to set aside $75,000 for a yet-to-be-named group to carry out the same mission.
Some council members said that group still could be the Multicultural Chamber, if its leaders can answer questions from the city as well as the FBI or HUD.
The city’s review led to a list of 18 questions for the Multicultural Chamber to answer. The Chamber responded to those questions Tuesday at the City Council meeting and Wednesday at the County Commission meeting.
Commissioner Fred Skillern said he looked at the chamber’s responses and still was not satisfied.
“Seventy-five percent of the answers, I would still have questions,” he said.
Skillern said he has seen at least three versions of Gilchrist’s salary, and he wants answers.
“I want to see all the facts come out,” he said. “Give me a little bit of truth, and I might consider it.”
He added that right now, however, he would not support giving any money to the chamber.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Thursday that after laying off workers and freezing positions to save $13 million in a tight budget, the county can’t consider funding the chamber now.
“We simply don’t have the resources,” Coppinger said.
Other commissioners and council members could not be reached for comment Thursday. Commissioners could vote on the budget Thursday.
City Councilwoman Sally Robinson said the chamber faces four to five serious inquiries.
“The Multicultural Chamber has their work cut out for them,” she said, and the city needs to look for “another entity” for the mission.
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...