A museum divided: Lincoln Foundation at odds with museum management over sloppy accounting

Illinois Capitol News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The two groups that run the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and its nonprofit foundation appear headed for a split after scrutiny in a state audit and in other reports documented sloppy accounting, questionable purchases, and risky loans.

The museum’s interim executive director Melissa Coultas told state lawmakers they were making progress cleaning up clerical errors and financial mismanagement during a hearing before the Legislative Audit Commission on Tuesday.

“The agency did not maintain sufficient controls over its property and related fiscal records,” state auditor Jane Clark said.

The foundation solicits donations and makes purchases of historic artifacts while the museum and library staff manages the facilities on site.

State budget documents show the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum received $11.2 million in state funds in Fiscal Year 2020, and is on track to receive $12.5 million this year. Governor Pritzker’s new budget proposal calls for a $1.2 million spending increase this year, raising the museum’s funding to nearly $13.8 million.

“Our executive team has been focused on establishing a strong commitment to transparency and accountability for the state of Illinois taxpayers and residents,” Coultas told the Legislative Audit Commission.

She accused the foundation of concealing its fundraising totals and internal spending decisions from the museum, which allows the foundation to rent space for free in the downtown Springfield facility.

“We’re not entirely clear on how much money they’re bringing in to their operations in our name,” Coultas said.

The foundation, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is a private entity and cannot be audited by the state. However, the foundation claims it is audited by a third party every year, and has had “clean audits” every year since its first in 2002.

The most recent tax documents filed with the IRS by the nonprofit show $307,478 in “program service revenue” from museum memberships, $304,664 in investment income, and $2,065,208 in donations and grant funds. The foundation spent $822,925 on salaries and benefits, and $1,684,110 on “other expenses,” which the museum said it could not understand or explain.

The foundation also received $271,030 in government grants, and spent $65,160 to hire lobbyists to influence legislators.

The foundation leadership bristled at the museum’s suggestion that it could evict the nonprofit from the grounds of the museum. Foundation leadership also accused the museum of seeking to put the foundation “under the substantial control of state government.”

The Pritzker administration has rebuffed requests for a state bailout of the outstanding loan payments. Lawmakers pleaded with the two sides to find some sort of resolution.

“We have these two organizations kind of bickering in the public’s eye,” Senator Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) said.

“There are hundreds of libraries and hundreds of foundations around the country that do this, I presume, all the time,” Senator Laura Ellman (D-Naperville) said. “There should be a way for this one to operate optimally and well here in Springfield.”

If the two parties cannot agree on a new memorandum of understanding, they could split, and leave the museum without access to the Taper Collection of Lincoln artifacts, which infamously included a stovepipe hat which historians question ever belonged to Lincoln. The foundation still owes $8.7 million on the loan, according to documents published in a state audit.

Lawmakers also grilled the museum’s directors for loaning out historic documents like an original copy of the Gettysburg Address to conservative commentator Glenn Beck.

“When questions are answered like, ‘Are some of these items out on loan?’ And ‘how long have they been out on loan?’ And ‘when will you get them back?’ Or ‘have you gotten them back?’ And they don’t know the answer to some of these things, you got to be very concerned about that,” Rep. Randy Frese (R-Quincy) said.

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