This is a story about a small cabal of dishonest people, who destroyed all democratic legitimacy within international organised atheism. It is the first of a three-part story, told with the help of the interviews given and the documents written, by those who were directly involved.
Atheist Alliance International (AAI) was formed in 1991. It was a democratic alliance comprising dozens of national atheist groups from around the world. I was an Officer of Atheist Ireland while that organisation was an Affiliate Member group within AAI, and I was also the Secretary of the alliance for some years. AAI was the only atheist organisation in the world to have Special Consultative Status at the United Nations, and Participatory Status at the Council of Europe.
An Early Sign Of Things To Come
Bill Flavell was co-opted onto the AAI Board during 2017. Directors were normally elected to the Board by the Affiliate Member groups, but there was also a provision within the Bylaws “to fill a casual vacancy” when an elected Director did not serve out their entire term. This was the provision that allowed Bill Flavell to join the AAI Board. A full copy of the AAI Bylaws is available at the bottom of this page, and the relevant provisions for co-opting Directors are illustrated in the extract below.
Notwithstanding his appointment according to this process, on 29th August 2017 Bill Flavell announced that he had been elected. This was not an honest or accurate public statement. Maintaining a distant relationship with the truth was to become a pronounced theme on the AAI Board, which continues to this day.
Since Bill Flavell had merely been appointed rather than elected, Bylaw 63 required that he had to submit himself for election by the Affiliate Member groups before the end of 2017, or else “resign as a Director”.
Bill Flavell did neither of these things. Instead, he refused to arrange any AGM or any elections in 2017, despite the AAI Affiliate Member groups at the time requesting that he do so. While never receiving a single vote from a single Affiliate Member group, he went on to spend years falsely pretending to represent dozens of atheist organisations worldwide, including at the United Nations.
It is also instructive to consider how Bill Flavell responded to complaints, when he was confronted about his dishonest betrayal of democratic legitimacy at AAI. Another theme of recent years within that organisation has been their proud and confident promotion of the most puerile excuses for their wrongdoing, followed by a juvenile expectation that everyone else must then carry on as if everything has been adequately explained.
When asked to explain his false claim that he had been elected, Bill Flavell accurately quoted Bylaw 70, which described how Officers were appointed. While of course the adults in the room noticed that being appointed and being elected are not synonymous, Bill Flavell just carried on regardless with the sophomoric expectation that this would be accepted as an adequate explanation of his behaviour.
Expanding The Unelected Cabal
Howard Burman was also co-opted onto the AAI Board without election before the end of 2017, and he also spent years pretending to be a representative of many atheist groups worldwide without receiving a single vote from a single Affiliate Member group. For much of that period Howard Burman purported to be the President of AAI, while Bill Flavell purported to be the Vice President.
John Richards was an another person who was co-opted onto the AAI Board during 2017. At no time did he ever receive a single vote from even a single Affiliate Group, and yet he also spent years falsely pretending to be a Director of AAI who was representing atheist groups from all over the world.
As an indication of just how comprehensively this small group of dishonest people betrayed the Affiliate Member groups who had built this democratic alliance, John Richards has described how they began their tenure by suspending the AAI Bylaws in secret. They did this without telling the rest of the AAI Board or announcing the suspension of the Bylaws to the Affiliate Member groups. John Richards has since spoken about these actions during a video interview, from which a short extract is provided below.
The full live and unedited video interview from which this extract is taken, is available here.
Throughout the interview, John Richards uses the term “special measures” to describe how he and Bill Flavell and Howard Burman suspended the AAI Bylaws. I recently asked the other Directors who were on the AAI Board at the time about this, and they had never heard of this term. Neither had they been made aware that the Bylaws had been suspended while they were serving on the AAI Board.
“I checked the video. I do not know anything about the Special Measures team.”Director on the AAI Board during the relevant period in 2017
In the interview extract above, John Richards describes being appointed to a three-year term. This was totally outside the Bylaws, which required John Richards, Bill Flavell and Howard Burman all to be elected by the Affiliate Member groups before the end of 2017. However, while this small cabal of people had understood among each other that the Bylaws had been suspended so that they continued acting as Directors of AAI without any democratic mandate, nobody outside their group was aware of what they were doing.
Lying About Their Dishonesty
Keeping their suspension of the Bylaws a secret from the rest of the AAI Board and from the Affiliate Member groups, represented appallingly dishonest behaviour on behalf of this cabal. When asked to explain why they behaved in this way, they lied. Both Bill Flavell and John Richards have stated publicly that the anti-democratic steps they took during this period were necessary because AAI was on the verge of bankruptcy, and may not have survived the financial crisis it was experiencing.
The full live and unedited video interview from which this extract of John Richards is taken, is available here. The full live and unedited video interview from which this extract of Bill Flavell is taken, is available here.
Of course, even if this supposed financial crisis was real, it would not have justified the suspension of the AAI Bylaws in secret. In fact, instead of keeping such a situation a secret from the rest of the Board and from the Affiliate Member groups of AAI, if the alliance really was on the verge of bankruptcy then this should have been communicated to all stakeholders immediately. However, the reason why nobody else was informed about this supposed existential financial crisis, was because this account of the situation just wasn’t true. Whereas this cabal have consistently claimed in public statements that AAI was headed for bankruptcy in 2017, they were simply lying.
AAI was absolutely not heading for bankruptcy in 2017. The figures below describe the month-by-month bank balances that were reported to the AAI Affiliate Member groups as part of the financial accounts presented at their 2016 AGM. It can be seen that there was more than $45K in the bank on 1st January 2017.
During 2016, total expenditures were around $20K while income from subscriptions and donations was around $42K.
A copy of the minutes from a purported General Meeting of AAI during 2018 are available at the bottom of this page. The extract from that document illustrated below shows that the 2017 Board had turned a $22K surplus from 2016, into a $17K deficit in 2017. Nevertheless, even if it was imagined that all further income were to have immediately fallen to precisely zero, given that there was still tens of thousands of dollars in the bank there would have been plenty of time to manage this situation. All of the AAI expenses (such as attending conferences) could easily have been stopped immediately without any contractual or organisational impediment.
Further proof that the small dishonest cabal within the AAI Board were lying when they claimed that the alliance was headed for bankruptcy, could be seen from how they were spending money at the time.
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
After Bill Flavell had secretly suspended the Bylaws and begun appointing his friends to anti-democratic three-year unelected terms, the next thing he did was to start awarding uncompetitive no-tender AAI contracts to his children. On the 16th of November 2017, Resolution 1775 was presented to the AAI Board.
Bill Flavell was among the group who “identified Leah Flavell as well qualified” to provide this web development consultancy. Despite the fact that AAI was an international alliance with extensive contacts all around the world, no other candidates were considered and Bill Flavell’s daughter was appointed. Moreover, even though the AAI Board had employed Leah Flavell at £350 per day to speak with a web developer on their behalf, Resolution 1777 was then introduced to the Board barely a month later on 19th December 2017.
Both the consultancy fees for Bill Flavell’s daughter and the additional $1,000 gratuity for the web developer, were paid by AAI in 2017. This does not seem like an organisation that believed itself to be heading for bankruptcy. Under normal circumstances, governance issues like awarding uncompetitive no-tender contracts to family members would be subject to full accountability at an AGM. Under normal circumstances, the financial position of AAI would be perfectly obvious to all Affiliate Member groups at an AGM. This is because the AAI Bylaws required the Board to keep detailed accounts and present them to the Affiliate Member groups at an AGM every calendar year.
The Board is required to submit to each Annual General Meeting a report on the current and proposed operations of the Alliance and a statement of the previous year’s accounts.
95.Extracts from the AAI Bylaws
The Board shall cause proper accounts to be kept, showing: all money received and expended by the Alliance; all sales and purchases of goods and services by the Alliance; and the assets and liabilities of the Alliance. The accounts shall be such as are necessary to give a true and fair view of the state of the Alliance’s affairs and to explain its transactions.
Notwithstanding these requirements in the Bylaws, there were no 2017 financial accounts published by Bill Flavell, Howard Burman and John Richards. In fact, not alone was theirs the first AAI Board that ever refused to publish annual accounts to the Affiliate Member groups, it was also the first AAI Board that ever refused to arrange an AGM. This cabal suspended the AAI Bylaws in secret; started paying AAI cash to their own children; and then refused to be accountable to the AAI Affiliate Member groups in any way. All of this was despite the fact that at the time, AAI Affiliate Member groups were explicitly asking for the 2017 AGM to be arranged.
“Can you confirm you have received our membership subscription payment? In addition, can you also let me know when this year’s AGM is to be held/announced?”Email from AAI Affiliate Member group to the AAI Board on 27th November 2017
The AAI financial accounts from 2017 and subsequent years are still missing, and have not be published to the Affiliate Member groups to this day.
A Coda On Conspiracy Theories And Cabals
Even though they couldn’t keep the truth hidden forever, this small group of dishonest people who destroyed all democratic legitimacy within AAI, tried to cover up their wrongdoing by lying about it for years. Even up to 2022, anyone who drew attention to the actions of the cabal on the AAI Board was presented as a crazy conspiracy theorist. David Orenstein, who illegitimately described himself as AAI President after another anti-democratic process engineered by the cabal during 2022, also engaged in this sophistry.
The full live and unedited video interview from which this extract of David Orenstein is taken, is available here.
What is accepted now, even by those directly involved, is that a small number of people on the AAI Board unilaterally suspended the Bylaws in secret. They didn’t tell the rest of the Board and they didn’t tell those AAI Affiliate Member groups who had built the alliance. They then proceeded to make cash payments from AAI to their own children; they refused to publish financial accounts as they were required to do; and they refused to be accountable to the AAI Affiliate Member groups, even when those groups asked directly for the mandatory 2017 AGM to be arranged. Instead, they continued to dishonestly retain the roles they falsely claimed to have been elected to, by cancelling all elections within AAI for several years. None of these facts are now in dispute. It’s really difficult to imagine what else this group could do in order to more perfectly fit the definition of a cabal.
In addition to spending many years portraying anyone who mentioned their cabal as a crazy conspiracy theorist, the same people and others have also spent many years repeatedly lying to cover up their other wrongdoing. In particular, the cabal went on in 2018 to perpetrate a coup. They unlawfully expelled those Affiliate Member groups who favoured democratic structures, and then they illegitimately changed the Bylaws to give themselves full personal control of AAI. As John Richards has said, “democracy had to be put on hold”.
Those who now boast of putting “democracy on hold” to save an organisation that was “heading for bankruptcy”, have all spent the past few years lying about their behaviour, by insisting that they made best efforts to adhere to the AAI Bylaws at all times. When volunteer atheist activists from every continent complained about the lack of democratic legitimacy at AAI, the cabal repeatedly denied this and claimed to be deeply offended by any suggestion that they had deviated from the Bylaws. Now they brag and crow about how they suspended the Bylaws to rescue AAI from a fake crisis. If their actions were so heroic, we can only wonder why suspending the Bylaws had to be kept secret for years, and why they subsequently lied so often by proclaiming their supposed endeavours to respect the integrity of every single Bylaw.
The details of further anti-democratic behaviour will comprise the second part of this story, when The Cabal Plan Their Coup. Finally, the third part of the story will bring us up to the present day as The Cabal And The Coup Continue at AAI even now. Throughout, there will be more documentary and video evidence demonstrating the same themes of lying; of financial misconduct; and of anti-democratic behaviour; all repeated by the same people and others, up to and including recent months.