When former National Organization for Women President Toni Van Pelt stepped down under a cloud of criticism this summer, many members expected never to hear from her again. What they did not know was that their former head had received a six-figure payout and would resurface again, months later, as a leader in her home chapter.
Documents obtained by The Daily Beast show NOW’s national board offered Van Pelt $400,000 to resign in August, after more than a dozen current and former employees accused her of racist and bullying behavior. The agreement also allowed her to remain a member in good standing, opening the door for her to assume the vice presidency of her local Florida chapter.
“The whole thing was a fiasco,” Cynthia Harris, a recently elected board member from Florida, told The Daily Beast. “Here is a woman who has not even acknowledged the fact that there’s a problem and she’s still at it.”
She added: “She has shown, by taking another leadership role within this state, that she’s no different from Trump.”
Van Pelt, national NOW, and the West Pinellas NOW chapter did not return requests for comment.
A Daily Beast investigation published this summer revealed Van Pelt had been accused of allowing racism to run rampant throughout the organization by more than 15 former NOW staffers and interns, as well as her former vice president. In the wake of that investigation, six more former board members and employees—including Christian Nunes, the vice president at the time—came forward to accuse Van Pelt of disrespecting and ignoring women of color and making racially insensitive statements. Within weeks, an overwhelming majority of the state chapters had called on Van Pelt to step down.
Van Pelt tendered her resignation on Aug. 14, citing “health reasons.” A board-ordered investigation of the national office at the time uncovered “governance issues and evidence of a toxic work environment,” but found that “allegations of racial discrimination and retaliation were not substantiated.”
The severance agreement includes more than $180,000 in salary continuance, $13,500 in time off, $10,000 in moving expenses, and $35,000 to cover breaking the lease on Van Pelt’s home in Silver Spring, Maryland. It also includes a severance award of nearly $155,000—money that members say could have been used on advancing the advocacy group’s aims, not paying out a former executive.
Emails obtained by The Daily Beast show Jocelyn Morris, the only Black woman on the board at the time, vehemently opposed the agreement.
“We should never have rushed this process like we did,” she wrote in an email to fellow board members. “We did a dis-service to our membership and it might be too late to fix it.”
She added: “In the rush to get Toni out of office we have allowed her to rape NOW and laugh all the way to the bank.”
The investigation and agreement appear to have been overseen by Elaine Wood, vice president of consulting firm Charles River Associates. In an email to board members after the agreement was signed, Wood reminded them that they could not comment beyond a three-sentence formal statement. “By the terms of the separation agreement, each Board member is required to respond to inquiries for further information with a ‘No Comment’ statement,’” she said.
To the women of color who organized to have Van Pelt removed, the agreement felt like a slap in the face.
“It seems like she was being rewarded for bad behavior,“ said Triana Arnold James, Georgia chapter president. “It’s kind of like a parent saying, ‘Go to your room,’ but in your room you've got the television, phone, and games.”
Kolieka Seigle, the California chapter president, said she was chastised by board members for asking for more information about the severance package and the investigation. She was particularly upset that no written report on the investigation’s findings has been released to state chapter leaders or the broader membership.
“There is no record at NOW about these performance issues and these disturbing and racist actions,” she said. “As a member, what are we paying for?”
Members were equally incensed that Van Pelt was allowed to take on another leadership position just months after leaving her role. An officer listing obtained by The Daily Beast shows Van Pelt is serving as vice president of the West Pinellas NOW chapter, directly under BJ Starr—a NOW member who was accused of publicly identifying as a woman of color for the first time earlier this year in order to score a seat on the national board.
Arnold James said the way Van Pelt’s resignation and wider complaints of racism at NOW were handled made her uncertain of her future in the organization.
“It’s really hard to be a part of, because we never really addressed the toxic environment,” she said. “You think the problem is solved but it’s not solved, because we never addressed the underlying issue, which is the racism.”