NEW ORLEANS – The chairman of the board at Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra gave his first interview Tuesday about the 10-month-long process of sending back controversial payments from the city’s library support foundation.
Grammy-winner Mayfield and his longtime business partner Ronald Markham led the New Orleans Public Library Foundation when it sent more than $1 million in donations for city libraries to help the orchestra build a $10 million headquarters, concert hall, bar and community space in Central City.
When WWL-TV exposed the payments in May 2015, Jazz Orchestra board chairman Ron Forman promised to quickly pay all of the money back. However, the process has been more complicated as both the library charity and the Jazz Orchestra scrubbed their books to determine how much was paid and how.
“We’ve told you from the very beginning that we take these accusations very seriously,” said Forman, who is better known as the head of the Audubon Nature Institute. “And with that, we were going into an internal review dealing with two leaders in our community: A Grammy-winning trumpeter and a great project in the Oretha Haley neighborhood. And it was important that we do our homework and we weren’t going to start commenting until we had all the facts.”
Forman and his counterpart at the Library Foundation, Bob Brown, both say they are on the verge of a written agreement to pay the money back. But Forman said certain concerns have complicated matters, preventing an earlier resolution.
Forman said the Jazz Orchestra completed its internal review “four or five months ago,” but then had to wait on a similar legal and accounting review by the Library Foundation, which had to form a brand new board when Mayfield and Markham resigned last spring.
Bob Brown, the new Library Foundation chairman, announced in early December that their reviews were done and the total paid to the Jazz Orchestra between 2012 and 2015 was $1.03 million. The next month, the Jazz Orchestra said its own internal review found the money had all been spent properly.
Asked Tuesday if he had any doubt that all $1.03 million should be paid back, Forman said: “I think there’s no doubt that we’re working on a resolution. This is a very complicated issue. It’s about whether money was spent properly or not. The documents say the money was spent properly.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the Library Foundation have not been so equivocal. Brown said the foundation sent the Jazz Orchestra a demand letter for the full amount. Landrieu told WWL-TV the diversion of the library donations to the Jazz Orchestra was a “serious breach of trust.”
“The dollars were spent on items that are not clearly library-related,” Landrieu said. “As mayor, and on behalf of the taxpayers, it is important to me that funds privately donated for our Library system are invested appropriately. I expect (the Jazz Orchestra) to return all grant funds to the Library Foundation.”
Forman said negotiations with the Library Foundation are going well and he expects a resolution soon, but he cautioned that he wants a solution that would protect the integrity of the People’s Health New Orleans Jazz Market and Mayfield and Markham’s reputations.
“We’re trying to protect that neighborhood and the project,” he said. “And we’re trying to protect two people’s reputations. At the same time, we want to resolve this issue fairly for everyone.”
Both Forman and Brown have promised to announce the terms of the agreement when it is finalized.
There’s another issue that Forman has not addressed over the last 10 months. His son Dan was on the Library Foundation board with Mayfield and Markham when they changed the charity’s mission and began sending six times as much money to the Jazz Orchestra as it granted to the city’s library system. Ron Forman bristled when asked if he was concerned with how that looked.
“You’re going into an area where I’m questioning your values and ethics in what you’re asking,” he said. "There’s no conflict in any of those areas and I have no problem at all in what role my son serves as a volunteer, the role I serve as a volunteer. None of us gets paid a penny.”
State records show Dan Forman signed the official Library Foundation resolution changing its articles of incorporation to expand its mission beyond just supporting public libraries. The younger Forman told WWL-TV last year that Mayfield told him the resolution was about adding more members to the foundation board. He also said he didn’t remember voting as a board to pay the Jazz Orchestra “that amount.”