In the past six months the National Black Chamber of Commerce has rushed to the defense of for-profit colleges, the oil industry and the largest supplier of menthol cigarettes, all while pursuing a lawsuit against the only other national organization that represents black businesses.
The nonprofit, established in 1993 to advance the interests of black entrepreneurs, has long opposed regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. But its recent forays into the debate over government regulation of menthol cigarettes, for-profit colleges and AT&T's proposed merger with T-Mobile have raised concerns among some other African-American businessmen about the group's agenda.
Last year, the NBCC filed a suit against a new, similarly named black business group — the U.S. Black Chamber — alleging that the upstart group is trying to poach its members and identity.
The NBCC — which counts Exxon Mobile and Lorillard, the maker of minty Newport cigarettes, among its major financial supporters — acts much like other trade associations working to advance the interests of its dues-paying members, but some critics wonder how those missions actually help black businesses.
For nearly 20 years, the NBCC, led by Harry Alford and his wife, Kay DeBow, has been the only black business group in town, spending roughly $1 million every year on its activities.
Alford has served on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for most of the last decade, and the NBCC shares many of the same positions as the original chamber, one of Washington's most stalwart pro-business voices.
But outside Washington, some black business leaders felt their voices were not being represented by Alford's group.
"They have been around for years, but they seem to be a partisan chamber," said Channel Powe, the membership director at the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce. "It sends the really, really wrong message, especially speaking on behalf of the African-American professional business community."
Alford says he voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 because he was black, but since then, the NBCC has opposed the administration at every turn. In a radio interview, Alford called the administration's policies "Marxist."
That is partially what drove the creation of the alternative group.
"People need options; we're not trying to take anything away from them," said Ron Busby, who founded the new chamber in 2009. "We felt like there had to be an organization that was working on both sides of the table. Not all African-Americans think alike or do business alike."
Alford accused the White House of creating the new group to drown out his voice. The White House denies any hand in establishing or favoring the organization.
J.P. Fielder, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it is not uncommon for other groups to call themselves "chambers of commerce" and nearly 3,000 state and local organizations around the country do so "because it is such a credible national brand."
Neither group appears to be well known outside the black community on Capitol Hill, and several Congressional staffers who had attended hearings where Alford spoke said they had previously been unfamiliar with either organization.
Angela Rye, the executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, "There is no black monolith on issues; the National Black Chamber is a more conservative group, like the U.S. Chamber. ... They will align where it's necessary to advance the cause of business."
In January, the NBCC, which has pressured the administration to expand domestic oil drilling, launched a campaign to protect oil industry jobs by highlighting what its website describes as "rogue players" that are "acting outside of industry norms." Alford was also an outspoken opponent of the 2009 House-passed climate bill and the Kyoto Protocol, saying both measures would ultimately hurt companies that employ blacks.
But critics point out that Alford's group also received donations from Exxon — totalling $275,000 from 2006 to 2009, according to a company spokeswoman.
In March, Alford appeared before a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel considering tightening restrictions on menthol cigarettes, which are used disproportionately by minorities and low-income people. He sided with Lorillard, arguing that restrictions could lead to an underground market that would endanger black communities. The tobacco company has been a chamber member since 2008, paying $35,000 in dues each year.
Alford and DeBow said that by focusing on business interests at large, they are advancing black causes too.
The group "does not have permanent 'friends' only permanent 'interests,'" DeBow said in an email. "The National Black Chamber of Commerce has worked to build strategic relationships with a broad spectrum of groups, policymakers, thought-leaders and regulators."
The group's filings with the IRS do little to clear up questions about its finances and how Alford and DeBow are paid.
In 2007, the organization reported receiving more than $900,000 in member dues. The following year, it collected just under $390,000 in dues but reported about the same amount in "contributions and grants." In 2009 dues were back up to more than $800,000.
The couple draws no regular salary from the nonprofit, but it is listed as their full-time job on documents filed with the IRS.
"Harry and I have decided that, in order to maintain a thriving organization, not to give ourselves a salary. We are paid, however, for our time, which is not a regular salary," DeBow said in an email. She would not elaborate on how much that ends up being.
She said the group currently employs eight independent contractors, but the most recent forms filed show no payments to employees. In 2008, the NBCC paid almost $397,000 to independent contractors, but the IRS reports do not indicate who those contractors are. One of the couple's sons posted to a LinkedIn account that he was employed by the group from 2007 to 2009.
The NBCC also recently hired lobbyist Lanny Davis to work against proposed regulations on for-profit colleges. Davis, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, had previously been working for a coalition of for-profit colleges that opposed those rules.