The Valley's premier rock-climbing club is scrambling to recover from an internal struggle that had officers and members climbing all over each other.
A trickle of charges against Arizona Mountaineering Club's ex-president, Paul Diefenderfer, has turned into an avalanche of lawsuits and countersuits that have rocked the 30-year-old club and led to an exodus of officers and club members. Half of the club's 400 members failed to renew memberships this year.
Diefenderfer denies the charges brought by former treasurer Chet Wade, who alleges that Diefenderfer misappropriated funds and laundered money. The club's board of directors cleared Diefenderfer of wrongdoing last August.
In turn, Diefenderfer sued his accuser for defamation of character. Wade subsequently sued him.
Several of the club's monthly meetings have erupted into shouting matches, and the tiff has generated a blizzard of letters and mailings, including a pirate version of the club's newsletter, called The AMC Newsletter--NOT!.
Remaining members of the club--which teaches climbers, including Mayor Paul Johnson, the sport's basics--are struggling to pick up the pieces.
"This has been really painful," says club member Rogil Thomson. "It literally gives me ulcers."
"The club is being yanked apart," says Kim Huenecke, director of public relations. "People are trying to bring it back together, and it's just not working."
The club's downhill slide began with a letter penned by Chet Wade, who served as treasurer for two years before he got into a tiff with Diefenderfer during a river-rafting trip taken last summer. In his resignation letter, Wade charged his longtime friend with writing an $800 check to himself without getting approval from Wade, who was out of town at the time, or the general membership. Wade called the move a violation of the club's bylaws, which require members to vote on any nonbudgeted expenditure exceeding $100. Wade also accused Diefenderfer of laundering a $350 check through the nonprofit organization.
Wade sent the letter to the club's nine-member board of directors. Within a week, Diefenderfer had contacted an attorney, who threatened to sue Wade if he continued to spread the charges. Wade was undaunted and, along with other dissatisfied members, continued to protest. In August, the club's board of directors cleared Diefenderfer of wrongdoing, printing the results of an investigation in the club's official newsletter. It refused to print Wade's original letter.
The board said the money-laundering charge was unfounded because the $350 check was accidentally written to AMC for private guiding services provided by Diefenderfer and other club members. The president told the board he had reported the income to the IRS.
Accounting for the $800, though, was more complicated. That money--part of a $3,500 grant from REI, an outdoor-sporting-goods company--came in after the year's budget had been set. Because REI earmarked the money for production of a guide to trail building and maintenance, Diefenderfer didn't need club approval to spend it, the board said. Diefenderfer, who was in charge of writing the guide, later produced receipts for a computer photo-scanner and hard drive, which he says he bought to produce the manual.
"If Mr. Dief suddenly leaves the country, then perhaps we can start worrying," the board's statement says. Otherwise, "the AMC president has not committed any wrongdoing."
But the dissenting members refused to buy the explanation. They again tried to get club leaders to publish their letters in the official newsletter. They were denied.
"Paul didn't like a lot of controversy," remembers Huenecke, a former board member. "When it came up, it was squashed pretty quickly." So the dissenters published their own newsletter--a sharp-edged, 23-page slam against the club's leaders--and sent it to the entire club membership. The AMC Newsletter--NOT! called the official club mailing "propaganda" that stifled "the free dissemination of any member's opinions."
A subsequent one-page handout claimed that Diefenderfer "stands convicted by his own actions as an imprudent, abusive tyrant who was supported by hapless toadies." Along with Wade's original charges, the dissenters claimed that the nonprofit club's relationship with Phoenix Rock Gym--privately owned by Diefenderfer and other former club officers--violated the club's conflict-of-interest policies. The offenses warranted the board's resignation, the dissenters charged. They also proposed a two-year term limit for club officers, a proposal that was later voted down by the general membership. (Many considered the idea laughable in light of the fact that the volunteer club's elections rarely are contested. Even amid the controversy in January, Diefenderfer ran unopposed for the presidency.)
The club's general meetings--which typically consisted of videos, slide shows or talks about places to climb--degenerated into shouting matches as the dissenters tried to take their case to the entire membership. "We had several new members join the club and quit the same night," laments Thomson, who heads the club's membership committee. "Most people aren't interested in hearing the gripes."
Diefenderfer, too, got out of hand at the meetings. According to Wade's lawsuit, the president "maliciously described Chet Wade and referred to him as a liar, an idiot, a bastard and an asshole." Some of the evidence cited in both lawsuits is of sketchy origin. Included in Wade's evidence was a letter to the principal of McClintock High School, where Wade's wife, Jeri, teaches. The suit claims the letter was written by Diefenderfer's wife, Anna Marsolo, even though Marsolo's name was misspelled at the end.
In the letter to the principal, the writer claimed to have seen "Geri Wade" using illegal drugs during an excursion. "I feel it to be My duty to inform you and your PTA about her heavy use of marijuana during this private trip," the letter states. "I was shocked that your school would have such a person around. Mrs. Wade also bragged about her husbands use of drugs in the 60;s and 70's. I wonder how she as a teacher could help form young minds to the proper ways of society behavior." The letter was signed, "Dutifully, Anna Marsola." When she learned of the letter's existence, the real Marsolo immediately sent a strong denial to the school's principal. The principal says the matter has been resolved to her satisfaction.
Soon after the lawsuits were filed, Diefenderfer quit the club, saying the controversy was damaging his health.
The club's reaction to his resignation was mixed. Almost every member praised Diefenderfer's commitment to the club and some of its projects, such as development of the popular hiking trail up Camelback Mountain. But others described Diefenderfer as the club's "king" who had too much power.
Soon after Diefenderfer quit, the club's vice president, secretary, treasurer and one board member also stepped down.
John Ficker, a remaining board member, whom others describe as a "climbing legend," reluctantly took over as president. As of this month, the club had picked up about 40 new members, and the total membership is back up to about what it was at this time last year.
Still, rebuilding is an uphill battle--dissenters are still demanding that a few remaining board members step down. And the lawsuits continue to mount.
At the end of March, dissenters sued Ficker for allegedly withholding information on the recent election.
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As one club member said, "It's really kind of sad. We just want to have fun, meet other people, and climb--not go to court."
@topq:"The club is being yanked apart. People are trying to bring it back together, and it's just not working."
@pq:"It's really kind of sad. We just want to have fun, meet other people, and climb--not go to court.