Illinois Gov.-elect JB Pritzker wants to audit a financially-struggling foundation that’s asking for state money to pay down a $9.7 million debt for Lincoln artifacts it once purchased, including an expensive stovepipe hat whose ties to Lincoln are unproven.
Efforts to launch a state audit of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation stalled in the waning days of the fall legislative session. But the incoming Democratic governor’s show of support figures to put the issue back on the front burner in Springfield when lawmakers return in January.
The foundation faces an October 2019 deadline to pay off what’s left of a $23 million debt.
The debt dates back to 2007, when the foundation bought a trove of Lincoln artifacts for display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum from a California collector named Louise Taper. At the time, Taper also sat on the foundation’s board of directors.
Citing lagging fundraising, foundation officials have sought state help in paying off the balance of what it owes. Without that commitment, they have threatened to auction off some of the historical artifacts they bought.
Several key lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the foundation’s strategy to leverage state support and its inability to secure private funding to pay off the debt. That skepticism was behind House and Senate resolutions asking Auditor General Frank Mautino to scour the nonprofit’s books to the extent that’s legally possible.
This week, Pritzker signed on to that push.
“In order to ensure there is sound financial planning and management, an audit of the foundation’s relationship with the museum would be a good first step toward addressing debt management,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement to WBEZ.
But she was non-committal when asked about the governor-elect’s level of support for a $9.7 million taxpayer bailout for the foundation.
“As governor, JB will work with the General Assembly to consider all options and opportunities to address the state’s financial challenges, including those at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum,” Abudayyeh said.
The foundation was established to acquire Lincoln artifacts to be exhibited by the Lincoln museum in Springfield, but the relationship between the two entities has frayed. One recent flashpoint has been the foundation’s unusual secrecy over its efforts to validate the authenticity of its stovepipe hat.
In September, WBEZ reported how the foundation secretly commissioned curators at the Smithsonian Museum and Chicago History Museum in 2013 to substantiate the hat. But those officials concluded the foundation’s “current documentation is insufficient to claim that the hat formerly belonged to President Abraham Lincoln.”
A year later, the foundation secretly reached out to the FBI to conduct a DNA analysis on the hat, but that effort again did not prove a connection to Lincoln.
Neither report was divulged in full to the museum’s current executive director, Alan Lowe, until August. That secrecy, Lowe said, “shocked” him and was “unacceptable” on the foundation’s part, particularly considering that he had been “on the front lines defending the provenance of the hat.”
In September, a foundation spokesman said it only felt compelled to reveal findings regarding the hat if they had been able to establish a proven link to Lincoln.
Asked about Pritzker’s position, the foundation said it is committed to an ongoing discussion with the governor-elect and lawmakers.
“The foundation remains open to any and all discussions with members of the General Assembly, the office of the governor and/or the office of the governor-elect to enable this iconic treasure of a collection to remain at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum,” foundation CEO Carla Knorowski said in an emailed statement.
State Sen. Jason Barickman, a Republican from Bloomington, described Pritzker’s support for an audit as “noteworthy” and said transparency by the foundation about its financial management is a necessity if it’s to have any hope at securing state funding for its debt.
“I think the questions have to be answered before you can draw a conclusion about what the state should do, if anything, here,” said Barickman, who sponsored a resolution seeking a state audit of the Lincoln foundation.
State Sen. Andy Manar, an influential Democrat from downstate Bunker Hill and chairman of one of two Senate appropriations committees, agrees more financial transparency is necessary to get a better look at the foundation’s ledgers. He is casting broader doubts on whether the foundation has been making a genuine effort at fundraising.
“What I’m interested in is making sure the foundation’s partnership for retiring the debt that was incurred is a real effort, and thus far, I haven’t been shown evidence that proves it’s a real and concerted effort and goal on the part of the foundation,” Manar said.
Dave McKinney covers state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.