NEW ORLEANS -- City Library Director Charles Brown wrote in an email that he was “really concerned” when he learned in 2013 that the Library Foundation, a nonprofit created to support the public libraries, didn’t have enough money to keep making its usual annual contributions to the city’s library system.
City emails, obtained by WWL-TV through a public records request, shine additional light on how musician Irvin Mayfield and his business partner, Ronald Markham, dealt with the city library system as they directed more than $1 million from the nonprofit Library Foundation, where they each served as president, to the Jazz Orchestra that paid them each six-figure salaries.
The Jazz Orchestra used most of the money to build the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market in Central City, but some library donations were also used for Mayfield to take lavish trips and to buy a new $15,000 trumpet.
The FBI and the New Orleans Inspector General’s Office have been conducting a criminal investigation for years, and last month agents visited the Central City library branch asking questions as a part of the probe. No crimes have been charged related to the matter.
Brown, who became city library director in late 2011, told WWL-TV in a 2015 interview that he supported the Jazz Orchestra’s effort to build the Jazz Market and include some library services. The emails also show that Brown wrote a letter of support for the Jazz Market project in 2013 and asked Mayfield to edit the letter before it was finished.
But in the 2015 interview, Brown told the station he didn’t know the Jazz Orchestra had received so much Library Foundation money to build the Jazz Market. He also professed to be surprised that Mayfield and Markham were on the board of the Library Foundation and employed by the Jazz Orchestra when the money was transferred.
Similarly, Brown expressed surprise about the Library Foundation’s weakened financial condition in a December 2013 email exchange with Markham. That’s when Brown made his usual annual request for $100,000 from the Library Foundation for general support, in addition to a $70,000 commitment the Library Foundation had already made to support a literacy program. Markham replied by telling Brown the foundation’s resources “will soon be depleted if requests like these continue to come in.”
“I had a discussion with Mayfield about the $70k that was committed and that’s fine,” Markham writes on Dec. 26, 2013. “You and I should get together soon and discuss how the Foundation’s finances typically work. … In short, the library’s continued reliance on the foundation to support it (even in small dollar amounts) depends on our ability to raise significant funds on an annual basis.”
Markham goes on to tell Brown the foundation often must “eat away at the principal to pull down cash.” But the foundation’s tax returns show it was actually increasing its fund balance each year until 2011, when Mayfield first started transferring library donations to his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
As the Library Foundation fund grew from 2008 to 2011, the charity gave at least $648,000 a year to the city’s libraries, even giving more than $1 million in 2009. But from 2011 on, the Library Foundation started spending money on causes other than the libraries and its fund balance dropped from $4.3 million to $2.2 million in 2014.
In the emails, Brown apologizes to Markham for “assuming” $100,000 would be “the ‘standard’ annual amount,” but says he hopes the Library Foundation could at least support commitments he already made for January and February 2014 based on his assumption that the library charity would give the libraries its usual $100,000.
Brown asks for “$18k maximum” to pay for an annual staff meeting, pay a merchandising consultant, bring in authors and speakers and to send a librarian to a national library conference in Philadelphia.
“I’m really concerned about the commitments I’ve made on behalf of the Library for January/February … without knowing about the Foundation’s fiscal status,” Brown writes to Markham on Dec. 29, 2013.
What nobody outside the Library Foundation knew at the time was that the foundation had spent even more money -- $18,713 – just for Mayfield and his assistant from the Jazz Orchestra to spend five nights at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on New York’s Central Park. The bill, from July 2012, included limousine rides, room service, high-end liquor and a single breakfast that cost $1,400.
The Library Foundation’s new board disclosed to WWL-TV last year that the charity paid the bill when Mayfield was in charge. The new board’s attorneys reviewed the charge, determined it had no discernable library purpose and sent a demand letter to Mayfield asking for the money back.
The Jazz Orchestra agreed last year to pay back the $1.1 million it got directly from the Library Foundation when Mayfield and Markham were in charge. It made its first of five annual payments of about $96,000 each to start paying back the portion of the money that the new Library Foundation determined was not properly documented.
A balance of $670,000 – representing expenses that were properly documented, according to the Library Foundation – is supposed to be paid back through benefit concerts for the library, but the Jazz Orchestra has been dormant since the scandal broke.
WWL-TV attempted to get Mayfield to explain his spending of library donations after he and Markham emerged from playing a set Thursday at the Jazz and Heritage Festival – a set that featured very little of Mayfield’s famed trumpet skills and more of him on a futuristic digital keyboard and DJ’ing samples of hip hop songs from a laptop.
As he has more than a dozen times in the last two years, Mayfield ignored the station’s request for an interview. His only public comment on the matter came in the form of a written statement last summer when he resigned from the Jazz Orchestra and apologized for his role in what he called “unfortunate misunderstandings of intent and purpose.”