NEW ORLEANS – More details are emerging about the plan to pay back more than $1 million in library donations that Grammy winner Irvin Mayfield and his business partner steered to their jazz orchestra.
And the terms are not what the library support charity or its donors were hoping for.
An internal memo written this week by New Orleans Public Library Foundation President Bob Brown outlines the deal to pay back $1.103 million paid to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra between August 2009 and November 2013, when either Mayfield or Markham were in charge at the Library Foundation and each making six-figure salaries running the Jazz Orchestra.
It says $483,000 would be paid in cash over five years, at $96,000 per year starting Jan. 31, 2017. The remaining $670,000 would be paid with in-kind contributions such as sponsorships, fundraisers and events like benefit concerts at the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market, a NOJO-owned performance space, bar and music venue that was built in part with the Library Foundation money.
Although Brown had previously said the total amount paid to the Jazz Orchestra was $1.03 million, he now says the figure is actually $73,000 higher.
Carol Billings, a retired law librarian and public library donor, was aghast at the proposed memorandum of understanding between the Library Foundation and the Jazz Orchestra.
“Oh, I find the proposal completely unacceptable,” she said. “I can’t imagine why any of us would think that was OK. I think it’s nervy and strange that the board of the Jazz Orchestra would propose something that just seems so unfair to the library.”
She was particularly baffled by the fact that the majority of the money would come from things like NOJO benefit concerts.
“Who do they think would go to something like that?” she said. “All of us are mad so we don’t want to go to hear an orchestra whose leader is the person we feel stole money from the library.”
Nobody has been charged with any crime, although sources tell WWL-TV a criminal investigation is ongoing.
Miles and Cal McGuire, high school students who raised more than $1,100 for the libraries with a lemonade stand when they were 8 and 6 years old, joined Billings in her disappointment.
“I would have liked to see a much higher proportion of the money being paid back directly than was set out,” said Miles, now 18. “It does seem that Mayfield has gotten off fairly easily.”
“It does seem like a dollar should be paid back with a dollar, and that doing a show seems like a much easier alternative for Mayfield,” said Cal, 16. “My gut tells me he should pay back all of what he has now, then raise the rest to pay back the whole sum.”
Mayfield, NOJO’s artistic director, has never agreed to answer WWL-TV’s questions about the payments. NOJO representatives did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
But Brown, who took over the Library Foundation board last May after WWL-TV exposed the payments and Mayfield and Markham were forced to resign, gave the station an interview Thursday after it discovered a copy of his Tuesday memo to city library administrators outlining the specific terms of repayment.
Brown said there’s a good explanation for why the deal is far short of what donors or the new Library Foundation board had hoped for.
“If we lived in a perfect world, NOJO would write a check for the whole amount and we would go about our business and they would go about theirs,” he said.
“But no matter what you say, NOJO is not walking around with $1 million in their pockets to pay the money back,” Brown added. “It’s one thing to win some kind of moral victory and come out holding the high ground, but it’s quite another to do the best you can in the situation and make the best recovery that you possibly can.”
Brown said the NOJO agreed to pay the $483,000 in cash because the new Library Foundation board could find no documentation from the Mayfield-Markham era justifying those payments to the Jazz Orchestra. The NOJO agreed to pay back the $670,000 remainder with in-kind contributions because, regardless of whether the payments were proper or not, there was at least some documentation of those expenditures found in the Library Foundation minutes, Brown said.
And the Library Foundation was also forced into a less-than-ideal deal because its legal options were limited, Brown said. He said they considered suing the NOJO but were advised by lawyers that it would be pointless.
First, he said attorneys advised that the state law prohibiting corporate leaders from taking actions beyond their proper powers – the concept known as “ultra vires” – does not provide for monetary remedies.
Secondly, Brown said that by the time accountants were able to wade through three years of shoddily maintained and unaudited financial statements left by Mayfield and Markham, more than a year had passed since the last payment to the NOJO, meaning the statute of limitations for a lawsuit had expired.
“People may never believe that our board has worked in good faith,” Brown said. “But this is a knotty problem, and we feel this is the best resolution we could get. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least it’s possible” to eventually recover all of the money.
What’s more, Brown said safeguards are now in place to “never let this kind of craziness happen again.” That’s the most important thing from the city library’s perspective, Public Library Board Chairman Bernard Charbonnet said.
“While the (city library) board has been briefed on the settlement between the (Library) Foundation and NOJO, we are not a party to any such settlement,” Charbonnet said. “The (city library) board's interest as stewards of the public trust is to emphasize that any funds raised in the future under the guise of the foundation be used for library related purposes and programs at the direction of the (city library) Director.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said the mayor is still waiting to review the agreement because it has not yet been signed by both parties.
Billings hopes the mayor, while technically powerless to change the agreement, can pressure the two sides to reconsider the terms.
“I would like to think that he would say, ‘This is ridiculous. The city’s not going to accept this,’” she said.