NEW ORLEANS -- One week after WWL-TV exposed questionable payments of public library donations to Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, the high-powered NOJO Board of Directors agreed Tuesday evening to give back the entire amount it received from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation.
NOJO Board Chairman Ron Forman, the powerful head of the Audubon Institute, told WWL-TV that NOJO now must raise more private donations to be able to reimburse the Library Foundation for its contribution to the new $10 million New Orleans Jazz Market building that just opened last month in Central City.
On Friday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called on NOJO to return money that did not go to the public library system. WWL-TV found at least $863,000 went from the Library Foundation to NOJO while NOJO's two highest-paid employees, Mayfield and Ronald Markham, were serving on the Library Foundation board.
Markham resigned from the Library Foundation board on Friday, but will remain president of NOJO, Forman said. Mayfield is the founder, artistic director and face of NOJO, the musical group he led to win a 2009 Grammy Award, and he also remains a NOJO board member. Mayfield has ignored or declined repeated interview requests from WWL-TV over the last several weeks.
NOJO's last public audit showed it had a $246,000 deficit on June 30, 2014, so board members -- including Forman, Mayfield, TV journalist Soledad O'Brien, political consultant Mary Matalin and others – will have to scrounge up close to $1 million more before the money can be paid back.
The $863,000 identified by the WWL-TV investigation came in 2012 and 2013, but Library Foundation records were not available yet for calendar year 2014, so it's unclear exactly how much money NOJO now owes the Library Foundation.
NOJO's financial records are kept on a fiscal-year basis, from July to June, and indicate that "related parties," which would include the Library Foundation because of Mayfield's position on both boards, gave NOJO approximately $217,000 in the year ended June 30, 2014. But Forman said he didn't know yet how much of that was given after Dec. 31, 2013.
"Whatever the amount is, we will reimburse it," Forman said. "And we will reimburse the whole amount."
Forman also said he and the board expect to be able to raise the money quickly.
Late Tuesday evening, NOJO issued a written statement on its decision, strongly suggesting that the gift from the Library Foundation was completely justified but should be returned in order to "move forward":
"NOJO and its Board of Directors are disappointed in misperceptions about the appropriateness of a relationship between a public library and a musical heritage, cultural and performing arts center. However, it is critical to our Board and to our artists to remedy any misperceptions and we unanimously chose to aggressively move forward today, return the dollars from the library foundation and immediately refocus on our mission to put jazz musicians to work, celebrate our culture, and travel the world promoting New Orleans and performing jazz music."
Both Mayfield and Markham left the Library Foundation board in the last few weeks, although Mayfield is considered an "emeritus member," according to the new foundation board president, Bob Brown.
Brown went to the NOJO meeting Tuesday to tell that organization's board that he is looking into the allegations outlined by WWL-TV, but he said he was not ready yet to make any statement about what happened before he joined last month.
Forman said the board stands by the vision of the Jazz Market, which includes providing library-related services such as free wi-fi, jazz collections and touchscreen computers. The Jazz Market's primary sponsor, Peoples Health, gave this statement to WWL-TV:
"This community venue is located in an area of the city that serves our member population and allows us to connect with and educate seniors on important health issues by offering fitness classes and health-related seminars in this optimal space. Our sponsorship does not include board representation, and current discussions regarding potential conflicts of interest have no bearing on the activities we will continue to offer at the Jazz Market."