NEW ORLEANS – Reacting to an exclusive WWL-TV investigation, Ronald Markham resigned Friday as president of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation board and Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for sweeping changes at the nonprofit library support organization.
On Tuesday, the station exposed how Markham and his boss, Grammy-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, used their positions on the library support foundation to send nearly $900,000 in library donations to a jazz orchestra that pays their six-figure salaries.
On Wednesday, the station reported that Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, with Markham as its president, pledged donations to help a fund for laid-off Times-Picayune employees but tried to pay with Library Foundation money instead.
Late Friday, Landrieu sent a statement to WWL-TV calling for the Library Foundation to go back to solely supporting the city's public libraries and for NOJO to return any money that was "not spent on Library purposes."
"Although the Library Foundation is an independent, private, non-profit, they are raising money for the public library," Landrieu said. "I'm disappointed that funds intended for the New Orleans Public Library were spent on items that appear to be unrelated to the library. As a result, we are going to work very aggressively with the Foundation to get their house in order and restore the public trust."
Markham issued a statement Friday through the Library Foundation that did not address directly why he was resigning. But, as he did in the initial WWL-TV report Tuesday, Markham stood by the board's decision to invest in the New Orleans Jazz Market, a $10 million jazz hall, bar and learning space that opened last month in Central City.
"The Foundation recognized it could play a supporting role to the (Public) Library in addressing this challenge by proactively expanding its reach to underserved communities and implementing programs that removed barriers to literacy outside the borders of the existing infrastructure," the statement said.
Mayfield has not responded to repeated requests for comment from WWL-TV over the last several weeks. He remains an emeritus member of the public library foundation board, on which he has served as president, vice president and a director since 2007.
Markham also remains the president of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, where he makes a salary of $100,000 a year. Mayfield is the orchestra's founder and artistic director and usually makes $100,000 a year, but earned $148,050 in 2012, according to public tax records.
Bob Brown, the former managing director of the Business Council, was named president of the library foundation board, replacing Markham. Brown promised to look into the concerns raised in the WWL-TV investigation. He stood by the foundation's sizable investment in the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra's $10 million Jazz Market in Central City.
"There is a tremendous amount at stake here," Brown said in a statement. "We're talking about the steps that were taken to establish a world-class center for jazz with a public library component in an underserved community. We just need to make sure that all those steps were taken in proper order, without skipping any."
"I'm pleased that Bob Brown has been named the new President of the Library Foundation," Landrieu said. "Moving ahead, I look forward to working with the new Foundation Board to ensure the Public Library and their patrons are the beneficiaries of donations to the Library Foundation."
Questions raised by the WWL-TV reports stem from actions the library foundation board took in 2012 and 2013. With Markham's resignation, the only member of the current foundation board who served during any of that time is Dr. Corey Hebert, who joined the board in 2013.
Like Mayfield, Hebert served on both the giving board – the Library Foundation – and the receiving board – New Orleans Jazz Orchestra – when the library foundation gave NOJO $197,000 for the Jazz Market project in 2013.
But the key moves were made in 2012, when Mayfield, then the Library Foundation board president, and Markham joined with three other board members to change the foundation's mission.
Prior to that, it had exclusively existed to support the city's public library system, according to its articles of incorporation, and had parlayed $4 million in donations after Hurricane Katrina into annual contributions of between $500,000 and $900,000 for the storm-ravaged city libraries. With the vote to change the articles of incorporation, the foundation expanded its mission to other "literacy and community programs," and the annual contributions to the library system decreased to around $100,000 a year.
As a part of the same board resolution in June 2012, Mayfield was personally granted "sole and uncontrolled discretion" over contracts and payments related to the board's expanded mission.
Markham told WWL-TV in a recent interview that he and Mayfield then approached the other three board members – Dan Forman, Gerald Duhon Jr. and Scott Cunningham -- and asked for library foundation money to support the Jazz Market project.
Markham said the whole board approved $666,000 for NOJO's project in 2012, so the Jazz Market could be built to serve as a jazz-focused satellite branch of the library system. But Forman said he did not remember approving such a large sum. Duhon said he didn't either and was under the impression that NOJO was just being hired to provide jazz-related services at an existing library branch.
Cunningham has not responded to requests for comment.
Former library board and library foundation chairwoman Tania Tetlow – whom former Mayor Ray Nagin ousted from the city board in favor of Mayfield -- said the payments are a clear conflict of interest for Markham and Mayfield. A former federal prosecutor, Tetlow said both men should have resigned from one board or the other before they entered into such an arrangement.
She called on NOJO to return the money. Landrieu appeared to do the same Friday, with a slight caveat.
"I have spoken to the Chairs of the NOJO Board and the Library Foundation Board," Landrieu said. "I fully expect the following to occur as soon as possible:
- A complete separation between NOJO and the Library Foundation;
- A complete rewriting of the Library Foundation's bylaws to require that Foundation funds are spent solely on the Library;
- A full auditing and accounting of the Foundation funds;
- A full refund of all Foundation dollars that were allocated to NOJO and not spent on Library purposes; and,
- A complete reorganization of the Foundation Board in keeping with the best practices of transparency and accountability."
Hebert remains on both boards, and Mayfield is on the NOJO board and is an emeritus member of the library foundation board.
Because Markham and now Brown argue that the Jazz Market will soon serve as a "satellite" jazz library, they could argue that the money provided by the Library Foundation was spent on "Library purposes." In addition, it could be difficult for NOJO to return nearly $1 million when that was already spent to cover almost a tenth of the cost of the chic new Jazz Market.
Members of the public who donated to the libraries after Katrina were outraged to hear that their contributions may have gone into something other than the libraries. But Markham and Brown both said Friday that the Jazz Market would soon become a vibrant library-like entity, with a digital jazz archive and children's and adult jazz book collections co-curated by NOJO and the public libraries.
"The foundation places a high value on growing the knowledge base of the community; expanding the concept of literacy to cultural literacy; the preservation of literary resources; and the provision of dynamic, impactful and interactive literacy programs to underserved communities, like Central City," Brown said.