January 17, 2018

New Orleans Library Foundation Board Members Resign in Funding Scandal

Update: As of July 5, Irvin Mayfield has resigned as artistic director and board member of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, according to a press release. Ronald Markham will remain as president and CEO.

The New Orleans Jazz Market building / Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans

The New Orleans Jazz Market building / Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans

Only days after a definitive victory at the polls, the New Orleans library landscape was making news again—but this time it was the Foundation, not the library itself, and the news was not good. On May 5, an investigative report by correspondent David Hammer for local New Orleans station WWL-TV revealed that between 2012 and 2013 Irvin Mayfield and Ronald Markham, who then served on the board of the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) Foundation as chair and president, respectively, gave the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) at least $863,000 in funding originally given to the NOPL Foundation. At that time both Mayfield and Markham were also drawing annual salaries of $100,000 apiece from the nonprofit NOJO, Mayfield as its founder and artistic director and Markham as president and CEO.

The money was redirected to NOJO as an investment in the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market, a renovated retail building in New Orleans’s Central City neighborhood that opened in April. The space currently serves as NOJO’s headquarters, a learning center, and a performance venue. The funds, Markham told Hammer, were earmarked for a satellite library installation within the Jazz Market.

Mayfield resigned from the Foundation board at the end of April, and Markham followed suit on May 8 after the report was aired; both continue to serve in their positions at NOJO. Mayfield has resigned his position on the Urban Libraries Council’s executive board. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement calling on NOJO to return the money, and for the NOPL Foundation to revert to its original mission of support for the library system only.

In the days that followed, the NOJO Board of Directors agreed to pay back the money in full to the Foundation. Because the funds were spent on construction costs for the $10 million Jazz Market space, NOJO will need to raise private donations of its own toward the refund.

Bob Brown, who stepped down from his role as former managing director of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, was named president of the Library Foundation board to replace Markham. “Since taking office,” Brown told LJ, “I have engaged our board to move swiftly and decisively to look into the Library [Foundation’s] affairs. That work is far from complete; in fact, it’s just beginning.”

TALE OF TWO BOARDS

While the NOPL board of directors is the municipal entity governing the entire branch system, the NOPL Foundation is an independent educational, charitable nonprofit fundraising organization. Although he had no prior experience in libraries, Mayfield, a Grammy award–winning trumpeter, was a prolific fundraiser for many local causes. In 2003 New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin designated him the city’s “cultural ambassador,” and in late 2006 Nagin picked Mayfield to replace city library board chair Tania Tetlow, whose term had expired that June. Mayfield served on both the city library board and the Foundation board between 2007 and 2011.

Tetlow, currently a law professor and associate provost for international affairs at New Orleans’ Tulane University, was a strong advocate for the library system after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Several of her colleagues, objecting to Nagin’s choice not to reappoint her, offered to let her serve out their terms. Tetlow, instead, planned to devote her energies to the Foundation, where she expected to be nominated as chair. Instead, Mayfield was appointed to that position as well, and Tetlow left the Foundation at the beginning of 2009.

In 2011, NOPL and the Foundation decided that membership on the two boards should not overlap, and Mayfield resigned his seat on the city library board. Tetlow believes that the reasoning behind the arrangement was sound, she told LJ. “But as a result the Foundation board got, for a stretch, very small, and at the time of this donation that’s at issue was made up of only five people, two of whom were Irvin Mayfield and Ronald Markham, and the other three were chosen by those two.”

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

The Foundation’s mission, as stated on its website, is to “[enrich] New Orleans’s people, culture, and economy by promoting literacy, supporting the New Orleans Public Library, and providing unique and accessible collections.” However, in 2012, Mayfield—at that time the Foundation board president—and Markham, together with three other board members, changed the language of the Foundation’s articles of incorporation. While the Foundation had previously existed exclusively to support NOPL, the new resolution expanded the board’s mission to include other “literacy and community programs.”

In addition, the bylaws were adapted to give Mayfield “sole and uncontrolled” discretion over contracts and payments relating to the Foundation activities. The board at the time consisted of Mayfield, Markham, and three other members: Dan Forman, Gerald Duhon Jr., and Scott Cunningham.

In 2012 the Foundation board gave NOJO $660,000 toward the Jazz Market project, which was being promoted as a “jazz-focused satellite branch of the library system,” according to WWL-TV. The same year, according to public record, the foundation gave the library $116,775—previously the Foundation had raised between $500,000 and $900,000 for the library every year since Katrina. In 2013, the foundation gave NOJO another $197,000.

According to the New Orleans Advocate, Bernard Charbonnet, current chairman of the city library board, said he was unaware of the foundation’s payments to NOJO. NOPL director Charles Brown concurred, although proposed plans for the Jazz Market had been discussed at city library board meetings; in a statement on NOJO’s website at the time, Brown said, “This exciting new venue will extend the Library’s reach into the community through access to its Jazz research, resources, and artifacts. In time, we envision further library offerings being provided from this location, including the circulating and return of library materials.” In addition, Brown did not know that Mayfield and Markham were drawing salaries from NOJO until he was informed by Hammer during the investigation. His reaction, he told LJ, was one of “shock and profound disappointment.”

While Hammer’s report emphasized the fact that the money channeled to NOJO had originally been donated in support of NOPL, what is at issue is the conflict of interest engendered by Mayfield and Markham’s profiting as salaried employees of NOJO. “If this had in fact been the best use of the money,” explained Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor, “then what needed to happen is that the NOJO directors needed to resign from the library foundation board and then ask the independent library foundation board whether they thought that was the best use of library foundation money, and go from there.” She added, “It’s not that the project is inherently a bad idea.”

“SHELVED INDEFINITELY”

The Foundation’s original plans for the Jazz Market involved what it termed a “pilot literacy effort,” which included a library annex, an onsite jazz archive jointly curated by the NOPL and NOJO, a “jazz-oriented collection” of books for adults and children, publicly accessible computers and free Wi-Fi, and interactive monitors. These were to have been in place by September 15. However, Bob Brown has stated, as of May 14, that plans for the library annex have been “shelved indefinitely.”

In a prepared statement, NOJO’s board of directors wrote that it was “disappointed in misperceptions about the appropriateness of a relationship between a public library and a musical heritage, cultural, and performing arts center. However, it is critical to our Board and to our artists to remedy any misperceptions and we unanimously chose to aggressively move forward today, return the dollars from the library foundation, and immediately refocus on our mission to put jazz musicians to work, celebrate our culture, and travel the world promoting New Orleans and performing jazz music.”

Landrieu stated that he would call for a complete separation between NOJO and the library foundation, as well as a rewriting of the foundation’s bylaws; a full auditing and accounting of the foundation’s funds; a full refund of all money given to NOJO by the Foundation; and a reorganization of the foundation board, which currently consists of Bob Brown, Corey Hebert, and Susan Krantz.

According to a May 14 WWL report, multiple anonymous sources revealed that a federal investigation into the matter has been initiated. Louisiana State University law professor Phil Hackney, a former IRS lawyer specializing in tax-exempt organizations, told Hammer that Mayfield’s 2012 changes to the Foundation’s articles of incorporation may not have been filed with the Secretary of State until 2014. This would mean that the language expanding the Foundation’s mission could constitute a false statement, although “federal authorities would have to prove that it was intended and not just a clerical error,” Hackney added. According to WWL, the attorney general’s office declined to confirm or deny any investigation.

Library consultant Louise Schaper, who worked with NOPL in 2011 as distinguished visiting librarian to organize training for the three boards—NOPL, Foundation, and Friends—told LJ that this could be a good time for library foundations to examine their operations. “Now is a great opportunity to study best practices for foundations,” she told LJ, “in particular library foundations, and their relationship to the entity they serve, and to put those best practices into place. That will ensure something like this could never happen again.”

Tetlow was optimistic for the future of both organizations. “I think this can all be fixed,” she told LJ, “and that every penny that people donated for the libraries will come back to the libraries, and that we’ll make sure that this Foundation that has existed for a very long time keeps doing its good work in supporting the New Orleans Library System.”

She also commended WWL for not airing the report until after the May 2 library tax election. “I was very proud of WWL for doing that because honestly, this issue had nothing to do with the property tax millage election and the use of public funds,” Tetlow told LJ. “Foundation money is never used—and could never be used—for the operating expenses of [NOPL]. So rather than report this at the last minute before the election, when there would be no time to explain those distinctions to the public, they chose to hold off on the story.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Rebecca White says:

    Dont hold your breath that LANDRIEU will do anything he says…. The WHOLE Board incluiding the FORMANS should be held accountable….and the deal struck by Brown falls WAY short of paying back the much needed funds in DOLLARS… free concerts dont help! This is another example of how New Orleans is so incested with the same ppl on every Board…voting for things for themselves!