ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - A former board member and four states that have had their licenses terminated by the Miss America Organization are suing the group and its top leaders, claiming "an illegal and bad-faith takeover" of the pageant.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Atlantic City by Jennifer Vaden Barth and pageant organizations from Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Georgia asks a judge to void the actions of Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper. It also seeks restoration of the situation that existed before the two assumed control of the Miss America Organization.
The organization called the lawsuit meritless, and part of "a year-long orchestrated smear campaign."
Numerous state organizations have been battling pageant leadership, citing dissatisfaction with the way the group is being run and with how a decision to eliminate the swimsuit competition from this year's pageant was reached.
"This is the first step in restoring the integrity and credibility of Miss America, which has been a cultural icon since 1921," said Barth, a former Miss North Carolina and former Miss America board member who has been among the most vocal critics of the group's current leadership.
"They have characterized anyone who opposes their decisions and those who are resistant to national pageant changes, primarily the elimination of the iconic swimsuit competition, as troublemakers and a `noisy minority,"' Vaden Barth said. "This could not be any farther from the truth."
The Miss America Organization called the lawsuit a baseless move by "disgruntled and conflicted former directors who have little understanding of nonprofit governance."
"The Miss America Organization welcomes and respects differing opinions and encourages healthy and respectful debate on how best to pursue positive change," the statement read. "However, the ongoing baseless attacks driven by ulterior motives masquerading as altruism damage the organization and cannot continue."
The organization accused state-level opponents of "defaming, slandering and bullying local, state and national volunteers," adding the actions have inflicted "lasting reputational and fiscal damage to a nearly 100-year-old American institution."
The litigation comes amid an ongoing struggle by state-level organizations to replace the pageant's top leaders. It begins by saying Carlson and Hopper "have orchestrated an illegal and bad-faith takeover" of the Miss America Organization.
The parent group has terminated or declined to renew the licenses of several state organizations and is shopping around for a potential new home elsewhere in the country after spending most of its nearly 100 years in Atlantic City.