Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Playing Cowboys & Indians with the Taxpayer's Money: AUTRY SEEKS TO SHIFT COSTS OF SW MUSEUM TO YOU

BACKGROUND:  The Autry Museum, the private "Cowboy" Museum housed on public property in Griffith Park "merged" a few years back with the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington - Los Angeles' oldest museum with its third largest collection of American Indian Artifacts in the world. (Only the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Hermitage in St Petersberg, Russia have larger collections, neither are in the American West.) The Autry promised to maintain and upgrade the Southwest Museum "Indian" collection and historic building - but quickly closed the Mount Washington site and transferred the collection to its Griffith Park facility - in spite of then Councilman's Villaraigosa's "Over My Dead Body" pledge. The Autry now apparently intends to deed the Mt Washington site to the Community College District …and stick the voters and taxpayers with the renovation bill. What does this have to do with Public Education in LA? The Southwest Museum has been a learning destination for generations of Los Angeles schoolchildren - supporting the fourth grade California History curriculum.Additionally, the following alleges a dubious behind-the-scenes scheme to use Prop 39 school bond funds to keep the broken promises of a private entity — in a pretty clear violation of the intent if not the letter of the law. –smf

by Daniel Wright - Friends of Southwest Museum Coalition

Who should pay to fully rehabilitate the Southwest Museum building? According to Jackie Autry and her Board of Directors: YOU.

The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition has uncovered an outrageous scheme to shift the duty of raising funds for rehabilitation of the Southwest Museum campus from Autry to the taxpayers of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). That means Autry now wants YOU to pony up the money that Autry said in 2003 it had in hand or could raise to rehabilitate the Southwest Museum campus.

LACCD officials plan to include "the Southwest Museum site" as one school site proposed to be upgraded using school bond funds if voters approve a $3.5 billion measure to be on the November 4, 2008 ballot. If voters approve the community college district bond, the Autry and LACCD officials will proceed with an as yet unannounced plan to convert the Southwest from this City's most historic museum into a government-owned school for community college students (and perhaps other purposes).

This raises a slightly more interesting question: precisely how and when will the Autry try to transition ownership of the nationally significant building from Autry to the government? How many students will be attending the new LACCD campus on Mount Washington? How much of the community college activities will be outdoor activities that may raise local concerns about noise, traffic, and other unexamined impacts? Will the Autry provide an ongoing annual subsidy to operate the school or will taxpayers be asked to pay for that too?

In yet another arrogant, top-down, imposed by elected-officials-seduced-by-Autry promises, local LACCD representative Mona Fields has quietly supported a plan, the details of which are still fuzzy, that will result in the Autry giving or selling the Southwest Museum to someone else while the Autry slips out the back door with our community's crown jewels: the collection of the Southwest Museum.

How do we know this? Because school bond funds cannot lawfully be used to pay for Autry's existing fiduciary duty of rehabilitate the Southwest Museum building. School bond funds may only be used to improve school facilities. Will Autry sell, lease, or give the Southwest Museum campus to LACCD? Is the community college salivating at getting the Southwest as a campus even though it has not bothered to ask its constituency if such a plan has community support?

Don't be mesmerized by the sleight of hand. The Autry's house of cards is crumbling. Elected officials and community activists who wandered away from their support of the overwhelming community position that the Southwest must be maintained as the primary museum site to exhibit its spectacular collection are at risk to look like fools for relying on the empty promises of the Autry.

In the upcoming public hearings, it will become evident that Autry has claimed for eight years it had a $100 million endowment that it did not have. Autry's certified public accountants, KPMG LP and PriceWaterhouseCoopers LP are currently under investigation by the California Board of Accountacy. They are accused of allowing Autry to book a $100 million pledge supported by a bequest in Jackie Autry's will as an asset of the Autry Museum. Bequests are not allowed to be recorded as non-profit assets. In its complaint against the Autry accountant professionals, the Coalition accused the Autry of being the "Enron of the Non-Profit World" for its misleading financial statements including the one shown to the Board of the Southwest Museum to induce it to entrust the collection and buildings to Autry's care.

The City Ethics Commission continues to investigate complaints filed against Latham & Watkins that Latham was lobbying for Autry for more than two years before it finally registered Autry as a lobbyist-client under the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance. A similar complaint is pending against Sugerman Communications Group for its failure to register as a lobbyist and report Autry as a lobbyist-client. If sustained, these failures to report are punishable as a misdemeanor or fines amounting to multiples of the hundreds of thousands of dollars of unreported compensation.

Add to that the legions of upper management jumping ship from the Autry. Maybe the new motto should be "What's West ? Who's Next?" Recent employment ads and other public announcements show that numerous key positions at the Autry are empty. Dwayne King, the Executive Director of the Southwest Museum, has resigned to head the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. Chief Financial Officer, Faith Raiguel, also under investigation by the State Board of Accountancy, has resigned to go to work for the LA Opera. Over the past few years, the Vice-President for Institutional Advancement has been a revolving door -- no one has held the job for much more than a year. The Finance Director and the Senior Director of Communications positions are also currently empty. And don't forget that Autry fired its first architectural design team for the Griffith Park expansion. This is a sign that there may be serious management problems at the top as Autry is unable to retain qualified individuals.

As we write our letters and e-mails to City officials and prepare testimony for the upcoming public hearings, remember that a team of experts issued a 227-page report that exhaustively established as a FACT it was physically and economically feasible to rehabilitate the Southwest Museum campus and return it to service as a museum. Evidence that Autry lobbied public officials to give up title to the Southwest's building and shift its financial promises to the taxpayers is just more evidence of a reckless management trying to breach fiduciary duties. The Autry has not yet breached its fiduciary duties, but it moved this week closer to the edge of the precipice.

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