What a lot of blathering went on at a recent House tourism committee hearing called to chew fat about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and its nonprofit foundation, which is threatening to sell Abe’s stuff unless the state writes a check.
The Nov. 13 shindig gave lawmakers a chance to question big shots on the foundation’s board, which, while reportedly sober, agreed to pay $23 million in borrowed money for relics owned by a board member. Eleven years later, and with money still owed, the foundation wants more than $9 million of taxpayer money.
Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-I Wanna Be Chicago Mayor, is sponsoring a bailout bill and asked such silly questions as whether the foundation board gets along with the board of the museum, which has no board.
The representative also said that he likes getting his picture taken alongside a fake Frederick Douglass whenever he visits Abe World. I prefer posing in front of the painting that depicts Bill Cellini looking over Lincoln’s shoulder – either that or the one that includes an image of Julie “First Citizen” Cellini, who was on both the board of the state agency that ran the museum and the board of the private foundation that borrowed the money and is now mastermind of the Abraham Lincoln Artifact Hostage Crisis.
Insiders always have run ALPLM, which was clear as foundation officials droned about how board members are selected and that the foundation follows tax laws and that audits have come out clean and that Lincoln was a great guy and blah, blah, woof, woof while the clock ticked toward adjournment.
Lots of questions went unasked while lawmakers allowed the rambling to continue. For example, why didn’t the price decrease when a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was originally supposed to be part of the purchase, wasn’t included in the final deal cut in 2007? After all, a copy of the document signed by Lincoln sold for $2.17 million in 2016.
Like infomercial hucksters, foundation officials touted a recent appraisal: Forty objects from the 1,500-artifact collection – less than three percent, volume-wise – are worth, by themselves, $10.3 million! OK. Who did the appraisal? What objects were included? Can we see a copy? Lawmakers never asked, and when I queried ALPLM director Alan Lowe, he said that he didn’t know the answers.
None of your damn business – that’s, essentially what Ray McCaskey, foundation chairman, said after the hearing, when he wasn’t boasting that the foundation is a barebones outfit that’s down to eight employees, only one of whom makes more than the governor.
Will you make the appraisal public? “The appraisal was made for a specific purpose, which was conversations with the legislature,” McCaskey answered. “If they ask for it, we’ll certainly give it to them. But we had some agreements with the appraiser about limiting it for the purposes of our discussions with the state. I personally don’t have any problem making any of that public, but we’d have to find out what our agreements are.”
Who was the appraiser? “Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you who that is,” McCaskey responded. “It’s all information – we can get that kind of thing.”
What objects were included in the appraisal? “Obviously, it included some of the better things.” Which ones? “I don’t know.”
Why didn’t the price change when the Emancipation Proclamation, according to a contemporaneous email from Julie Cellini, was pulled from the 2007 transaction? “I wasn’t even on the board at that time,” McCaskey offered. “I really don’t know.”
Would you buy a car from this guy? If so, I have a stovepipe hat that might interest you.
It’s not hard to understand why the foundation wouldn’t want an appraisal to go public. Prior to the 2007 purchase, an appraiser spotted some fake documents and also warned that questions would be asked about the authenticity of a hat that purportedly once belonged to either Lincoln or Jack The Ripper, as well as a fan that Mary Todd Lincoln supposedly toted to Ford’s Theater as well as a clock that once, allegedly, was in the Great Emancipator’s law office. With questions getting tough outside the hearing room, a guy in a suit told reporters no mas. “We’re going to have to go,” the suited stranger said as he cut reporters off. Who are you? He didn’t answer as he and McCaskey walked away.
This was a decided shift. “We are an open book,” Sarah Phalen, foundation treasurer, had told lawmakers during the hearing.
Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Skeptical, posed the best question.
“What are your daily duties?” the representative asked foundation chief executive officer Carla Knorowski, who collected more than $256,000 in compensation in 2017.
“As CEO, I’m chief ambassador of the institution,” answered Knorowski, who lives in Chicago, 200 miles north of foundation headquarters. “I raise money for the institution. I oversee, with my chief operating officer, the oversight of the staff. When it is constituted, I am liaison to the board of directors for the agency [the ALPLM, remember, has no board]. I meet with donors.”
Just as James Bond escapes sinking submarines, artifacts won’t budge. While the foundation liaisons and ambassadors itself to the next farce, important stuff, like putting every document Lincoln ever wrote or read online, is overlooked. Just three people are employed by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, which is supposed to make Abe, not just his gloves, accessible to the planet. Just a few years ago, there were nine, although plans and grant applications are pending, the museum says. Precious little has been published.
Turn this place over to the National Archives. Yesterday.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.