NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Public Library is no longer directing donors to contribute money and other library materials to the nonprofit foundation at the center of the Irvin Mayfield scandal.
The city’s library system recently removed the New Orleans Public Library Foundation from its “Support Your Library” web page, leaving a separate nonprofit group, Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, as the only place listed for the public to give donations for the libraries.
Also, a library unit manager sent an email to her staff April 9 saying, “If you encounter someone wanting to make a donation to the foundation, please direct them to the Friends. If you need to give them an explanation, simply tell them that our fundraising situation is currently in transition and only the Friends are accepting donations on our behalf at this time.”
It’s the first sign of a break in ties between the city-run library system and the Library Foundation, which has been trying to re-establish its footing as the primary fundraising arm for the city libraries in the three years since WWL-TV exposed a financial scandal involving the foundation and its previous two presidents -- Grammy-winning trumpeter Mayfield and his longtime business and music partner Ronald Markham.
As the TV station uncovered more details of the scandal, the Library Foundation cleaned house and tried to regain donors’ trust. But the volunteer-driven Friends group, which has been independent of the library system leadership since 1957, has gradually taken on a bigger role.
“We accept donations of all types,” said Courtney Kearney, chairwoman of the Friends board. “We are taking on new roles, and are now the fiscal agent for grants coming in for the New Orleans Public Library. But the library hasn’t officially stated we’re the sole fundraiser for them.”
City Library Director Charles Brown appeared to downplay the significance of removing the Library Foundation from nolalibrary.org’s fundraising page. He said it was removed “temporarily” as a result of the Library Foundation closing its office at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and “the current lack of any publicly accessible contact information.”
Brown also said the email from one of his unit supervisors was sent “to a relatively small group of staff” and, “I regret that all involved seemingly failed to seek out any definitive clarification from someone in the Library’s Administration.”
Asked to definitively clarify the Library Foundation’s role, Charles Brown said Bob Brown, who is president of the Library Foundation and not related to Charles Brown "has indicated to me verbally that the library can expect to receive some level of supplemental programming support from the foundation during 2018, although the exact amount and disbursement date have yet to be determined. At the most recent meeting of the Library Board (March 13th), Library Board members indicated they would continue to reach out to Bob Brown to learn more about the status of the Foundation and its plans. I am not aware if that/those conversations have yet taken place."
Bob Brown told WWL-TV he had received no word about any change in the library system’s fundraising process. Bob Brown said the foundation closed its offices at the LEH last September to cut down on expenses, but maintains a physical address with its accounting firm.
“A simple phone call or email from Charles would have gotten that to him,” Bob Brown said.
Notably, the LEH, where the Library Foundation set up its offices during Markham's tenure as president, is run by Markham's wife, Miranda Restovic.
Leaders of the Friends group were among those calling for full restitution after a series of WWL-TV reports in 2015 and 2016 exposed how Mayfield and Markham had directed more than $1 million from the Library Foundation to their jazz orchestra. In March 2017, Dixon Stetler, executive director of Friends, sent a letter to the city library board asking to let Friends take over the lead in fundraising.
“The scandal continues to affect our fundraising efforts. It has not faded away from the minds of our patrons,” Stetler wrote. “Every single book sale, every single membership solicitation, there is at least one question or comment about the Foundation. There is still a legitimate fear of a misuse of public funds.”
Then, in December 2017, a federal grand jury charged Mayfield and Markham with 19 felony counts of conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice for their use of nearly $1.4 million in Library Foundation funds.
But long before those criminal charges, the Library Foundation set up a brand-new board of directors led by Bob Brown, former vice chancellor at University of New Orleans and head of the Business Council of New Orleans. Bob Brown had been friends with Mayfield and Markham, but eventually decried their actions and provided WWL-TV with documents showing how Mayfield had used tens of thousands of Library Foundation dollars on luxury travel, hotels, meals and a gilded trumpet.
Brown and a new slate of foundation board members tried to re-establish trust among library donors. In 2016, tax records show, the Library Foundation grew its endowment for the first time in years. Brown came to an agreement with the jazz orchestra to recover at least $483,000 in cash from the money Mayfield and Markham transferred. So far, the orchestra has made two annual payments to the foundation totaling $193,000.