Leader “terminated” for alleged mismanagement; credit union development team says it will bounce back

Me’Lea Connelly (left) was fired from the Association for Black Economic Power for organizational and financial mismanagement in August, according to the organization. Joe Riemann (right), ABEP’s former director of finance and innovation, is also no longer with the organization.  Photo by David Pierini

Me’Lea Connelly (left) was fired from the Association for Black Economic Power for organizational and financial mismanagement in August, according to the organization. Joe Riemann (right), ABEP’s former director of finance and innovation, is also no longer with the organization. Photo by David Pierini

By Kenzie O’Keefe Editor

The Association for Black Economic Power says it will still open its much-anticipated credit union—Village Financial Cooperative—despite the recent firing of its leader. 

Me’Lea Connelly was “terminated” by the ABEP board in August for “organizational mismanagement,” “misconduct in regard to the organization’s finances and credit union application process,” and “potential fraudulent activity and theft,” according to a statement emailed to project stakeholders by the organization on Sept. 17.

“It was important to remove her from the work to move the work forward,” said outgoing board member Patrick Troska. 

Connelly confirmed she is no longer leading ABEP but said she “absolutely, vehemently” denies “any accusations against me around anything illegal or theft.” 

Joe Riemann, ABEP’s former director of finance and innovation, is also no longer with the organization. He was removed from his position in August, according to current ABEP leaders, who say that an investigation into Connelly and Riemann’s collective handling of the organization’s finances is underway. 

“I have never heard any of these allegations directly from the organization either when I was employed there or after the fact. These are false accusations and completely unsubstantiated,” said Riemann. 

ABEP declined to give more details on alleged misconduct due to “an ongoing investigation.” They did say they filed a police report at the Fourth Precinct in September, detailing “potential” crimes allegedly committed by both Connelly and Riemann. North News has a submitted a data request for that report, but as of press time had not received it. 

Connelly said she is “not aware of any investigation or any police report.” 

“I did everything I could to fulfill the mandate community made to establish a black-led credit union,” said Connelly, declining to describe her departure in detail saying that she is trying to be “thoughtful and considerate.” 

Staff and board members say they feel “betrayed by Connelly's conduct in relation to the collaborative nature of the work but remain steadfast in their commitment to advancing the organization with integrity.”

THE ROAD AHEAD 

Since the onset of the project, the ABEP team says they have sought to reimagine the way a financial institution could serve black community and overcome negative stereotypes about black leadership.

“There is already trauma with money and mismanagement. This is an added moment of pain” said Shiranthi Goonathilaka, engagement and member experience lead for ABEP.

She says a desire to live up to the uncompromising principles of black liberation is what led staff to bring their concerns about Connelly to the board—despite the potential derailment of the project. 

Board and staff members say their major financial backers which include the City of Minneapolis and The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota remain committed to supporting the development of a black financial institution. 

In a statement sent to North News on Sept. 26, the Phillips Foundation (which is also a funder of this publication) said it remains “steadfastly committed to Village Financial and have full confidence in the immediate and appropriate actions taken by the governing board and the organization as a whole.” They say they plan to continue working with all involved to “fulfill the commitment to the community and open the credit union.” 

In August, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced that he has recommended $500,000 of the 2020 city budget be allocated to the Village Financial credit union project. “Minneapolis is committed to supporting Black economic empowerment and cooperative financial institutions in our city and our region. Village Financial Cooperative has made significant progress since its launch, and we are continuing to meet and work with the VFC team during this transition period,” said Frey in a statement emailed to North News on Sept. 27. 

Despite receiving continued support from financial partners and community members in the wake of staffing changes, ABEP board members describe every day since Connelly’s ouster as “uncomfortable.” 

But they say the discomfort won’t deter them from recommitting to operating with integrity and opening the credit union next year. “We are not shying away from the uncomfortable work,” said Goonathilaka. “We’re not going away because this is what the community deserves.” 

ABEP leaders say they are coincidentally in the process of bringing on new board members and plan to host a community forum to discuss this situation and next steps in the coming weeks. They released this statement on Sept. 28.

Kenzie O'Keefe