Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday accepted the resignation of former federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as chairman of the state board that oversees the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
LaHood’s move follows last week’s disclosure that while he was a member of former President Barack Obama’s cabinet, he secretly accepted $50,000 from a foreign national, failed to disclose it on federal ethics statements and initially denied to the FBI that he took the money.
The longtime Republican congressman from Peoria avoided federal prosecution after agreeing to repay the $50,000 loan he accepted from an associate of Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire Gilbert Chagoury and pay an additional $40,000 in penalties to the federal government.
“The governor accepted Mr. LaHood’s resignation as chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum this morning,” Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement released Monday. It did not mention LaHood’s encounter with the feds.
His entanglement with federal prosecutors in Los Angeles was not known by the Pritzker administration at the time of his hiring, Bittner said.
“Under Mr. LaHood’s leadership, the museum is in a far stronger position today than it was a few years ago,” the statement reads. “Governor Pritzker is grateful for Mr. LaHood’s service, and especially his vision in attracting an outstanding and historic new executive director: Christina Shutt. His stewardship of the museum during this pandemic also preserved this remarkable Illinois gem. ”
LaHood did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WBEZ.
LaHood carried a sterling political reputation as a pragmatic coalition-builder with friends on both sides of the aisle. His son, Darin LaHood, is a GOP congressman from Peoria and potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate,
In papers settling the federal criminal case, the elder LaHood admitted accepting the $50,000 loan in 2012, when he was suffering “significant financial difficulties” in part related to structural issues concerning his home.
In financial disclosure forms for that year and for 2013, LaHood didn’t disclose the debt even though ethics rules required disclosure of liabilities of more than $10,000.
In the 2019 settlement released for the first time Wednesday, LaHood acknowledged not disclosing the money because he believed it came from Chagoury, whom the federal government reportedly had on its “no fly list,” and that he “did not want publicly to be associated with” the billionaire.
LaHood also acknowledged that he initially denied getting the loan during a 2017 interview with the FBI but changed that account when agents showed him a copy of the $50,000 check he had endorsed, according to his signed statement.
LaHood’s appointment to chair the Lincoln museum board was aimed as a step to bring stability to a state-run entity that has faced a multitude of problems in recent years, including feuding with the foundation that owns several major Lincoln artifacts that are regularly displayed at the museum.
Last week, talks on a new operating agreement between the foundation and museum broke down, resulting in the state severing its relationship with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, leaving in question whether the museum will continue to have access beyond next year to the trove of Lincoln artifacts the foundation controls.
One of those items is a disputed stovepipe hat that the foundation has said belonged to Lincoln. It was a centerpiece of a $25 million acquisition the foundation made in 2007 from a former board member, Louise Taper.
Assessments by experts at the Smithsonian Museum and Chicago History Museum, the FBI and the former state historian, Sam Wheeler, all cast doubts about the authenticity of the hat, which was appraised to be worth $6.5 million at the time of its acquisition. The foundation is continuing efforts to authenticate the hat.
The museum endured a black eye of its own making in 2019.
LaHood took the chairmanship of the museum board, just as an investigation by the state Executive Inspector General was wrapping up into the improper loaning of an original, state-owned copy of the Gettysburg Address to conservative radio talk-show host Glenn Beck by former museum executive director, Alan Lowe. That investigation recommended Lowe’s termination.
Pritzker abruptly fired Lowe in September of that year.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.