NEW ORLEANS – Calling the last months “trying and difficult,” Irvin Mayfield responded for the first time to the 14-month scandal surrounding his use of public library donations by resigning as artistic director and board member at the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a nonprofit he founded in 2002.
It only took a few days after WWL-TV began questioning Mayfield last year for him to resign from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation board. His business partner, Ronald Markham, also resigned after the station reported they had sent about $1 million from the library support charity to the Jazz Orchestra, where they each made six-figure salaries.
But Mayfield and Markham both kept their paying positions at the NOJO, even as series of reports by the station over the next year detailed Mayfield’s efforts to collect more library money, exposed an intensifying federal criminal investigation, an additional $150,000 funneled through another Mayfield-affiliated charity and finally, last month, an $18,000 hotel bill that Mayfield charged to the Library Foundation – complete with limo rides, booze and a $1,400 breakfast.
Mayfield and Markham continued to receive the support of their NOJO board and its president, Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman.
But on Tuesday, they accepted Mayfield’s resignation.
“The board recognizes Mr. Mayfield’s accomplishments as the founder and visionary of what has become one of the great success stories for New Orleans music, the celebration of jazz and the education of a new generation of musicians and artists,” NOJO said in a statement. “His efforts also helped to serve as a catalyst in the resurgence of Central City, one of the most important and vibrant neighborhoods in our city.”
Throughout the scandal, Mayfield declined WWL’s interview requests. He didn’t respond to yet another request and emailed questions after he resigned Tuesday, but did issue a statement to WBOK-AM Radio, which read in part:
“I do not believe that I have violated any law. If I played a role in creating a distraction from NOJO’s mission, I sincerely apologize. I respect all those who may not agree with my past direction or personal judgment, as I recognize their passion as well. We did not anticipate the misunderstandings and resulting opposition that has been wrought upon ourselves and those who have supported us.”
Library donors, current and former Library Foundation leaders and even Mayor Mitch Landrieu have not been so equivocal, saying the spending was clearly improper. Members of the city library board and others were disappointed in the agreement announced in May to have NOJO pay less than half of the $1.1 million back to the Library Foundation in cash over the next five years, the rest with in-kind contributions such as benefit concerts.
And a federal criminal investigation, which began before WWL-TV broke the story, has intensified in recent weeks, with several key witnesses telling the station that they have been interviewed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
So critics cheered Mayfield’s resignation Tuesday. Karon Reese, former president of another library support charity called Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, said the Mayfield scandal has had a chilling effect on all donations.
“We need full restitution made,” Reese said. “Not in-kind, or house concerts or concerts to raise money for the library; but we need to be paid back the $1 million-plus that is owed to the library. Irvin Mayfield needs to sit down and do what is right here. He needs to pay back the library. He needs to make a full apology, do everything he can to make it right.”
NOJO repeatedly stood by Mayfield and, while agreeing to pay back the Library Foundation, said the money went to proper use under agreements struck by the two Mayfield-and-Markham-led organizations.
In March, Forman told WWL-TV it was important to protect the Library Foundation’s $1 million investment in NOJO’s Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market, the $10 million bar, jazz club and community center built in Central City with the library money, state capital outlay funds and private donations.
NOJO cites a 2008 Library master plan that includes plans for a generic “storefront branch” in Central City as justification for using library donations to build the Jazz Market, which includes free wi-fi access, books and periodicals, family reading programs and a digital jazz archive paid for by the Youth Rescue Initiative, another nonprofit where Mayfield served on the board when it got $150,000 in library donations.
“And we’re trying to protect two people’s reputations,” Forman said in March, referring to Mayfield and Markham.
Asked about the fact that his son, Dan Forman, served with Mayfield on the Library Foundation board and signed documents granting Mayfield wider powers to spend the library donations, Ron Forman questioned the ethics of the WWL reporter.
Mayfield still has some “contractual obligations” with NOJO, but will no longer draw a salary, which ranged from $100,000 to $148,000 in recent years. It’s unclear if he will continue to provide services for NOJO with his production company, which got $109,000 from NOJO in 2012, on top of his salary.
The NOJO board is also still supporting Markham, retaining him as president and CEO of the NOJO. That shocked Reese.
“What about (Markham)?” Reese said. “He’s accountable for some of this, right? I mean, he was on both (the Library Foundation and NOJO). He was paid a six-figure salary too.”
Mayfield’s friends are rallying behind him, too. Jazz musicians Wynton Marsalis and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who have collaborated on Mayfield projects, have agreed to serve on a special committee to handle NOJO’s artistic direction as Mayfield departs.
And Basin Street Records President Mark Samuels, who has worked on projects with Mayfield for 18 years, said he was very disappointed that Mayfield was resigning from NOJO.
“Especially after the levees broke and his father drowned, Irvin has worked hard for a large number of organizations,” Samuels said. “He dedicated 7-10 nights a year specifically to raising money for others, and was called on many other times each year to offer his music or time to help organizations. If everyone worked as hard as Irvin each day to better our world, our world would be better."
But when asked about the specific allegations in the WWL reports, Samuels said this: “Based on what you reported, I would say he made mistakes.... But I don't believe what you reported is true."
Mayfield established NOJO just as he was rising to prominence as an award-winning trumpeter and became then-Mayor Ray Nagin’s cultural ambassador for the city of New Orleans. The orchestra, known as NOJO, truly emerged after Hurricane Katrina as Mayfield held benefit concerts, toured the world and won a Grammy with NOJO in 2010.
Meanwhile, Mayfield was tapped to lead the New Orleans Public Library system, and then to head the nonprofit New Orleans Public Library Foundation. In 2011, with Mayfield as president of the Library Foundation and NOJO president Ronald Markham also on the library charity’s board, the Library Foundation began sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to the NOJO and another nonprofit where Mayfield was on the board, without reporting it on their public tax filings.
The Mayfield-led Library Foundation only started disclosing those payments in 2012, after Mayfield had stepped down from the city’s Public Library Board, which required him to disclose his earnings under the state ethics laws.