Un-Civil War

Accusations fly between ALPLM, foundation

Legislators gathered on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's death to hear arguments over the Abraham Presidential Library and Museum and a private fundraising foundation that the ALPLM says is overly secretive about finances.

The foundation says that it has given millions of dollars to help the ALPLM, including $1.8 million during the most recent fiscal year. But ALPLM officials say that the nonprofit provides scant financial support for the institution's programs and infrastructure needs.

With no legislation pending on ALPLM governance or finances, legislators on the House Tourism Committee asked why the fray over money and power landed in their laps. Lawmakers urged the two sides to hire a mediator, an idea the foundation supports and the ALPLM rejects. Two legislators suggested repealing a 2019 law that gives the foundation a role in running the institution.

Acting ALPLM director Melissa Coultas told lawmakers last week that her staff has calculated that seven cents out of every dollar raised by the foundation over the past three years has gone for programs and infrastructure at the public institution. The amount doesn't include federal grants to support the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project that flow through the foundation, nor does it include money that's gone toward retiring debt the foundation incurred to purchase artifacts including a stovepipe hat that the museum no longer displays because there's no solid proof it belonged to Lincoln. The foundation and ALPLM had agreed to jointly hire experts to examine the hat, but the nonprofit recently backed out, saying it will pay for a study by experts who will sign nondisclosure agreements to help settle a controversy that's festered for nearly a decade. According to the ALPLM, the foundation during the past three years has spent more than 40 percent of its money on payroll and more than 19 percent on interest.

"The bottom line is that if foundation donors think their money supports the library and museum's exhibits, educational programs or infrastructure needs, they are 93 percent wrong," Coultas told the committee.

Coultas testified that the foundation has contributed an average of $167,000 a year for museum activities and that the net worth to the public is $80,000, given the state has provided the nonprofit with free office space and utilities. The ALPLM, she said, has received no money from foundation memberships sold at the door that came with free admission. She repeated complaints that the foundation won't provide the ALPLM with information on how it spends money and that the private group refused good-faith negotiations on renewal of a memorandum of understanding setting out roles and responsibilities. The agreement expired on March 31.

"After more than a year of trying to understand the operations of the foundation, we simply can't show you or the taxpayers that the foundation has anything but a parasitic relationship with the museum," Coultas told lawmakers. "We have made every effort to be professional and diplomatic in our public comments about the foundation, but I have to tell you, bluntly, I have never experienced anything close to this level of stonewalling or hostility."

Erin Carlson Mast, foundation executive director, accused the ALPLM of either engaging in mistruths or exhibiting a "baffling misunderstanding" of how to read Internal Revenue Service financial reports required from nonprofits.

"The purpose of any foundation is to raise and disburse money," Mast testified. "Unfortunately, the ALPLM has spread damaging misinformation about the foundation's efforts. ALPLM has falsely and publicly claimed...that the foundation only provides them with seven cents of every dollar raised." About 70 cents of every dollar raised or earned by the foundation goes toward ALPLM expenses, Mast testified.

The foundation wants a mediator to help the two sides reach agreement, Mast testified, an idea supported by at least three lawmakers on the tourism committee.

"I do believe the foundation's heart is in the right spot," Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Northlake, said. "This is childish bickering, back and forth."

Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Lombard, said the matter should be before a mediator, not lawmakers. "I'm still not quite sure what you want us to do," she said. "Both sides need to be open to having a non-party with no interest in this helping you get through to an agreement."

Asked by Costa Howard whether the ALPLM would agree to mediation, museum officials declined.

"We appreciate your thoughts," Dave Kelm, ALPLM general counsel told her. "Thank you very much, representative."

"Thank you for your dismissal," Costa Howard responded.

If the two sides make progress, Costa Howard said she'd consider repealing a 2019 law, passed in hopes of resolving differences, that gives the foundation a role in running the institution. Kelm said the ALPLM would agree to mediation only if the law is first repealed. "Without that, they can run back to the General Assembly, which is what they always do," he said.

The law calls for a working group consisting of legislators, ALPLM officials and foundation officials, but the group hasn't been established. It is supposed to be chaired by the state historian, but the state historian, an ALPLM employee, was fired last summer and Gov. JB Pritzker wants to make the position akin to a poet laureate.

"Why does the foundation need to be in state law?" Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, asked. Mast said she'd have to check with the foundation board. Sarah Phelan, the foundation's treasurer, didn't answer.

Bruce Rushton

Bruce Rushton is a freelance journalist.

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