David Hammer explores the relationship between the library foundation and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
NEW ORLEANS – Grammy-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield used his star power to raise a lot of money for the New Orleans Public Library system after Hurricane Katrina.
But WWL-TV found that he also used it to send some of that money directly into his own pet project, and indirectly into his own pockets.
Public records show that in 2012, the library's foundation gave the city's cash-strapped public library system $116,775, a typical annual gift from the earnings off its $3.5 million endowment. But that same year, the foundation also gave $666,000 to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for the $10 million New Orleans Jazz Market that ended up opening with fanfare in Central City just last month.
And in 2013, the library foundation gave the Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, $197,000 more.
Mayfield and his friend, Ronald Markham, each make six-figure salaries from NOJO, a nonprofit Mayfield founded. At the same time, they were also two of the five members of the library foundation board when it gave the majority of its grant money that year to the Jazz Market project. In 2012, NOJO reported paying two salaries: $148,050 to Mayfield and $100,000 to Markham. It also paid $109,441 to Mayfield's publishing company for "concert productions."
"It's a huge conflict of interest," said Tania Tetlow, who preceded Mayfield as chair of both the library system board and the library foundation — and is a former federal prosecutor. "However good an idea it might be, and I don't see how it is, your fiduciary duty to the library foundation is such that you don't vote to send the money somewhere that's going to personally benefit you."
Tetlow was floored by what WWL-TV discovered about the library foundation's payments to NOJO. And so was the current library system chairman, Bernard Charbonnet.
"If they're not supporting the library, as I'm told, then I would think as a donor I would be grossly disappointed," Charbonnet said.
Mayfield, 37, rose to prominence in the late 1990s, collaborating with jazz great Wynton Marsalis and starting his own band, Los Hombres Calientes, which won a Billboard Award and was nominated for a Grammy in 2003. That same year, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin named him the city's Cultural Ambassador, putting Mayfield front-and-center on the national scene after Hurricane Katrina. He won the 2009 Grammy for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra album called "Book One."
After Hurricane Katrina, Nagin appointed Mayfield to the city library board and he immediately became chairman. From 2007 to 2011, Mayfield served on the city library board and the Public Library Foundation board simultaneously.
During that time, the Library Foundation's stated mission was to raise money "for the benefit of the New Orleans Public Library" and it gave between $500,000 and $900,000 each year to the city library system. But in June 2012, the three other library foundation board members – Gerald Duhon Jr., Dan Forman and Scott Cunningham – joined Mayfield and Markham to unanimously re-write the organization's articles of incorporation, expanding its mission beyond just supporting the public libraries to helping other "literacy and community organizations."
They also resolved to grant powers specifically to Mayfield to "sign any and all acts, agreements, contracts, and documents that he deems fit and appropriate, all containing such terms and provisions as he, in his sole and uncontrolled discretion, deems necessary …."
Two of them said they followed the lead of the charismatic Mayfield. But they also told WWL-TV they never realized how Mayfield would be benefiting from those changes.
Duhon said he resigned from the board in 2013 because he didn't feel he was getting enough information about what Mayfield was asking the board to approve. Duhon remembered approving money for NOJO, but he said he thought it was for NOJO to provide jazz programming in the actual public library facilities, not for it to build its Jazz Market.
"That's the first I heard of that, that the money approved for programming in the libraries went to the Jazz Market," Duhon said.
Markham said he and Mayfield had to make a detailed presentation to their fellow board members to persuade them the NOJO project was worthwhile. But Forman doesn't remember it that way.
"I don't have any recollection of any presentation or a vote for that amount," said Forman, who has also since resigned from the board.
Markham said his pitch to his fellow library foundation board members was to "think outside the box" and support the Jazz Market as a way to bring library-related services to an underserved area of town.
"I'm a big fan of the public library system," Markham said. "I grew up in libraries, my mom's a teacher. But when we sat down and pitched it to them, we said, 'You know what? Let's get aggressive. Let's do something… crazy.'"
"Outside-the-box" thinking has been a hallmark of Mayfield's library leadership ever since former Nagin named him to replace Tetlow. He used his growing musical fame to play his horn at library conferences around the country and raise money and awareness for the New Orleans system's post-Katrina struggles. He also angered some locals by replacing senior librarians and naming a non-librarian, Rica Trigs, as director.
When Mayfield shifted from the library board to the library foundation, the nonprofit spent money to augment Trigs' city salary, which was a violation of state ethics law. It was slapped with a $1,500 fine. The organization tried to get the law changed so it could do the same thing for the new library director, Charles Brown, when he arrived from Charlotte, N.C., in 2012, but negative press forced the city to scrap the legislative effort.
Brown worked as a consultant for the foundation when Mayfield was the chairman. Brown spoke at the opening of the Jazz Market last month and pledged to help by providing jazz books and records curated by the public library system. But he said he didn't know about the salaries Mayfield and Markham were making from NOJO until WWL-TV told him.
"I think it's something for further examination and, like you, I'd like to learn more about that, the rationale behind that arrangement," he said.
Few donors expected their contributions to the public libraries to end up going to any non-library organizations, such as NOJO and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, or SoFAB. The foundation entered an agreement with SoFAB in 2012 to grant the museum money to open and run a "culinary branch" for the library system.
For instance, Miles and Cal McGuire were just 8 and 6 years old in 2006 when they set up a lemonade stand, collected $1,146.23 in small bills and coins in a shrimp boot, and donated it all to the Library Foundation. Tetlow was so impressed by the boys' effort that she posed for a photo with them for The Times-Picayune.
Now high-schoolers, the McGuires couldn't believe that their hard-fought contribution may have ended up in NOJO's hands.
"It's a library foundation," said Miles, now 17. "Why is it doing that? I'm not saying jazz is not a valuable cause. I think it's great. It's definitely something that's a cornerstone of our city, but as a library foundation I just think the money should be going towards the purpose for which it was set up."
"The donors who gave money to us before then gave it for the purpose of the public libraries, not something else," she said.
Mayfield did not grant WWL-TV an interview, citing a busy Jazz Fest schedule. But Markham did, showing the station the brand-new Jazz Market facility and touting the library-related services that it will make available to the Central City community.
"Those dollars (from the library foundation) went into this facility," not salaries, he said recently as he played one of the Miles Davis jazz records the public library system is providing the Jazz Market and showed off the mostly empty area where he plans to install touch-screen computers.
"You look into the computer screens that are going to come in here," he added. "And this wood; it looks great. It looks reclaimed and like it's cheap. It's not…. Money, stuff. The seats, the lighting, the air conditioning. I mean, this is like real stuff."
So far, the Jazz Market has one crate of Davis records, offers free wi-fi and holds family reading and crafts activities on Friday and Saturday mornings and early afternoons, before the space reverts to a bar and jazz club. Markham said the touch screens, when installed, will connect visitors with the public library's digital catalogue.
Asked about the apparent conflict of interest for him and Mayfield, Markham said they were upfront about it.
"If you look at my (NOJO's IRS Form) 990, which you have, and the foundation's 990, which you have, it's disclosed," Markham said.
Tetlow says it's good the pair didn't hide their interest, but disclosing it doesn't absolve them of impropriety.
"Declaring a conflict of interest doesn't make it any less of a conflict of interest," she said.
She said Mayfield and Markham should have resigned from one board or the other before asking for the two entities to enter into such a transaction. She also questioned how the foundation, with an endowment of just over $3.5 million entering 2012, could have spent around $1 million on grants in 2012, mostly to the NOJO.
Tetlow is calling on the Jazz Orchestra to return the money to the library foundation. But Markham stands by the use of the money and insists it went to the Jazz Market project, not to his and Mayfield's salaries.
"I can appreciate the story you're trying to tell, but in addition to that story, what we have here is a very forward-thinking and aggressive way to expand the footprint of the actual public library system, at no cost to the public," Markham said.
Editor's note: Not wanting to impact the election WWL-TV decided not to air the story before the Saturday's library millage election. Also, the questions raised by David's investigation deal with private deal with private donations and not taxpayer money.