The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum doesn’t belong to the public.
The institution built with tax dollars belongs to big shots. Just ask the big shots.
“After it belongs to us, it is our decision to do what makes the most sense for the ALPLM,” Tolbert Chisum, a board member of the private foundation established to support the museum, wrote in a 2007 email. “I see no reason in ever letting it out to the public, unless we need some publicity.”
The “its” to which Chisum refers aren’t the library or museum, but rather a collection of Lincoln artifacts and an accompanying appraisal prepared shortly before the foundation paid $23 million for Lincoln stuff previously owned by Louise Taper, a foundation board member who was on the receiving end of Chisum’s email. The note is held by a bank with another foundation board member on its board of directors.
The distinction between Taper’s collection and the museum is somewhat subtle. After all, without such relics as gloves the Great Emancipator wore to Ford’s Theatre, the ALPLM truly would be Abe World, a place where life-sized Lincoln dolls and dioramas revel tourists, if not scholars. The foundation has led searches for ALPLM executive directors (there have been a half-dozen or so since the institution opened in 2005) and paid experts to assess the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. The foundation’s executive director is paid $240,000 a year, $65,000 more than the museum’s director makes.
The foundation board includes such heavyweights as Julie Cellini and Jim Edgar. (Stuart Levine, the crook who snitched on Cellini’s husband and also helped bring down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is no longer on the roster.) From the beginning, the Taper buy was a private deal, with some of the richest and most powerful folks in Illinois telling the rest of us that it’s OK to peek at their toys, but don’t ask questions.
The foundation now is asking the state for money to retire debt for the collection or else. A week ago, the foundation disclosed that it is seeking an auctioneer to sell off artifacts, prompting national headlines and a surge in donations to the foundation’s GoFundMe page, which raked in more than $16,000 in the space of three days, bringing the pot to $26,000, with nearly $9.7 million to go.
Call it Week One of the Lincoln Artifact Hostage Crisis, which could last until the fall of 2019, when the loan comes due. Smart money says that, one way or another, Abe’s stuff will stay put. After all, $9.7 million isn’t a lot in the scheme of things, and this is the Land of Lincoln. But if we’re to bail out the foundation, we should expect more than title to relics and documents. What we need, as much as locks of Lincoln’s hair, are answers.
It’s tough to figure how the foundation got into this pickle, given that it held $14.7 million in stocks and other securities in 2007, when the purchase was made, according to Internal Revenue Service reports. The most recent filings show the foundation had $6.2 million in publicly traded securities as of June 30, 2017. The foundation has collected nearly $41 million in revenue since 2007. It spent nearly $560,000 on fundraising last year.
At my house, we stop spending and sell securities before asking Mom and Dad for money, but IRS filings, to be fair, only go so far. To really understand the foundation’s finances, we need to see the books, and good luck with that.
A memorandum of understanding between the public institution and private foundation allows ALPLM staff to inspect the foundation’s books and records, but bars making copies and prohibits public employees from sharing information with anyone except the board of the public institution and museum employees “having a need to know in connection with the performance of their duties.” The memorandum gives the foundation the right to redact or withhold portions of books and records containing “donor confidential information.”
We should do better. To his credit, Gov. Bruce Rauner has told the foundation that state money won’t be free. “Like any other request (for money), on behalf of the taxpayers of Illinois, we have lots and lots of questions,” says Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for the governor. “The first question we posed to the foundation was, ‘Show us your plan for addressing the situation you’ve created.’”
In a startling kumbaya moment, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, agrees with Rauner, whom she nearly beat in the GOP primary. She notes that the foundation last year spent more than $800,000 on salaries and benefits, and she’s calling for a hearing. “We don’t have any access to any information from them, and that’s not right,” Ives says. “I’m mystified that they spent $800,000 on salaries. Most of the folks who sit on that foundation board are politically connected. Some of them have been there so long, I think they’ve lost perspective on what their duties are.”
It’s an understandable takeaway. The primary duty should be saving artifacts from being sold. And if the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation won’t open its books and answer questions, if the board would rather hold an auction than present a plan, then perhaps we’re better off without any foundation at all.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.