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This Fight in the Latino Community Will Be Hard to Patch Up

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<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

The battle for control of a major Latino civil-rights organization, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is not unlike a family fight--the alleged wrongs may be obscure to an outsider, but the anger behind them is obvious and a little frightening.

The latest allegations in the struggle for the control of MALDEF are that the organization mishandled a lawsuit that its attorneys filed on behalf of Latinos employed by a Texas grocery chain, costing three of them their jobs. And it is being suggested that one reason the lawsuit was botched is that the grocery chain retained a former head of MALDEF to negotiate its side of the settlement. In other words, critics are suggesting that a deal was worked out to benefit everyone involved in the suit except the blue-collar workers who had the most to lose.

As in a family fight, there are several sides to this story, and the more you listen to them the harder it is to say who’s right or wrong. But the importance of the charges is that they will further weaken MALDEF and guarantee that it is never perceived by Latinos, and the public at large, quite the way it was before--as a stable, reasoned voice for Latino rights.

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Details of the Texas lawsuit were contained in a letter mailed to MALDEF board members by the leader of a faction of the board that seeks to oust Antonia Hernandez as MALDEF president and general counsel and replace her with former New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya. Hernandez was fired last month by the board’s executive committee, but is fighting her ouster through the courts. Anaya has not pushed to replace her, and the full MALDEF board is supposed to settle the issue at a meeting later this month.

Hernandez’s critics cite the Texas lawsuit as one more reason she should not be allowed to continue as the agency’s chief executive. But in fact the person whose judgment the Texas case most calls into question is Vilma Martinez, the former MALDEF president who, as a private attorney based in Los Angeles, represented the H.E. Butt grocery chain in the lawsuit.

Martinez, like Hernandez and other MALDEF officials and members of the board, has declined to discuss the Butt lawsuit publicly. But in a letter to the MALDEF board she has defended her part in the case, saying that she was acting as a private attorney representing her client to the best of her ability. In fairness, there was apparently nothing illegal or unethical in her actions. And MALDEF spokesmen have pointed out that, regardless of the anger of the plaintiffs in the suit who did not get their jobs back, the settlement will benefit the Latino community as a whole. The grocery chain agreed to improve its hiring and promotion of Latino employees and to set up a scholarship fund for Latinos.

But how does the bitterness of the three Latino grocery clerks look to people on the outside? How does it look to the professional Latinos, the foundations and corporations that have supported MALDEF financially because they expect it to fight with determination and integrity on behalf of the poorest segment of the Latino community?

Saddest of all, how does it look to millions of poor and working-class Chicanos who look to organizations like MALDEF to represent their interests? Does it mean that they, too, could be sacrificed someday for the sake of a good legal settlement?

In a way this all reminds me of the painful process that many Latinos in Los Angeles went through a few years ago when the news media and several government agencies went after alleged wrongdoing in The East Los Angeles Community Union, then the Eastside’s biggest community-action organization. In those days TELACU was considered the most influential agency in the Latino community, with access to the highest political and corporate circles in town, as well as in Sacramento and Washington.

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Then it was learned that TELACU board members and executives, given money to help the poor on the Eastside, used it to give each other jobs and loans and to lease fancy cars and apartments. TELACU officials protested that they were just doing what businessmen do all the time--putting up a good front. But that rationale overlooked the fact that TELACU was not just another business. It had a special responsibility to the poor, a duty that its leaders had apparently forgotten in their heady rush toward influence and power. TELACU survived that crisis and paid some of the misused funds back to the government. But its reputation has never recovered.

One wonders if MALDEF’s reputation can ever recover from these latest revelations. It was bad enough when the Hernandez firing became public, undercutting MALDEF’s image as a strong voice for Latinos. Now many people will think that MALDEF and its leaders are capable of the same kinds of cozy, old-boy-network dealings that helped get TELACU into trouble. And it won’t matter whether the charges are true or not, only that the allegations are out in the open.

That is one of the saddest thing about family fights. Things are said out loud that maybe shouldn’t be. And afterward, when everyone tries to patch things up, it’s hard to forget what was said in anger. Somehow things are never quite the same again.

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