socastcmsRssStartBy Greg Bishop | Illinois News NetworksocastcmsRssEnd
The leaders of a private foundation that supports the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield told Illinois lawmakers that the organization is prepared to sell prized Abraham Lincoln artifacts to pay off a multi-million loan unless the state can come up with the money.
Officials told lawmakers at a House committee hearing Tuesday that the foundation has until the end of the year before it starts the process of evaluating what items to auction off. The foundation’s chairman also said the nonprofit organization is willing to comply with the state’s public records laws and the Illinois Open Meeting Act if other similar organizations are open to the same public scrutiny.
The foundation is asking the state to cover a $9.2 million debt on a loan that’s due October 2019. The debt is from what’s remaining from a $25 million loan the foundation took out more than a decade ago to buy a collection that included more than 1,000 artifacts, many with connections to the 16th president and his family.
One of the items in the collection is a stovepipe hat thought to have belonged to Lincoln. The hat was valued at $6.5 million, but some have questioned its authenticity. In September, WBEZ reported that the foundation’s behind-the-scenes efforts to prove the hat belonged to Lincoln were inconclusive. Those efforts including FBI testing for DNA testing of the hat.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said he was upset that the foundation had the FBI conduct tests on the hat without the state knowing about it. He has also said he was concerned that the inconclusive FBI report was not shared with lawmakers when the foundation lobbied for tax dollars.
Springfield-area historian Tony Leone said the foundation’s relationship with the state-run library and museum has been rocky.
“It runs roughshod over the museum and it needs to be pulled in under control,” Leone said.
Leone joined others in pushing for the foundation to be subject to the state’s open records law and the Open Meetings Act. The state’s Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to allow for open inspection of most records, including how public money is spent. Nonprofit organizations are not subject to those requirements.
Foundation Chairman Raymond McCaskey said he’s open to that level of transparency.
“As long as they’re applied across the board to all agencies in similar circumstances that would be something that would be the new rules of the road and we would live with that,” he said.
State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, has a bill to require the foundation to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. She also said she’s open to making other private foundations that support public bodies, like those that support public universities, or the Illinois State Fairgrounds Foundation, comply with the same transparency laws.
State Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said the public library and museum’s board of trustees should fill that oversight role, but it has not had an approved board since since becoming a standalone agency in 2017. Gov. Bruce Rauner has nominated eleven people to serve on the board of trustees, but the Senate hasn’t acted on those nominations, Butler said.
Williams said lawmakers are still in negotiations with foundation officials about the request for the $9.2 million to pay off the loan.
“There were some conversations about maybe doing a matching grant,” Williams said. “There was another conversation about perhaps doing a loan, something that would have to be paid back, so all of those things I think are on the table. I have not made any commitments to utilize tax dollars for this purpose, nor has anyone else that I am aware of.”
State lawmakers have their own financial problems. The state has more than $7 billion in unpaid bills and at least $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The state’s most recent budget had a $1.2 billion structural imbalance.
Foundation officials said they are in talks with an auction house to begin the process of evaluating various items for auction and if funds aren’t available they’ll have to move forward with that process by the end of the year.
A Lincoln impersonator opened testimony at Tuesday’s hearing. He said that his legacy is larger than any hat. He didn’t take questions.