New Orleans residents love their libraries. Just last week, voters showed their support for the city’s struggling public library system by approving a tax millage that will bridge a $3 million budget gap and likely provide $4 to $5 million for budget costs in the coming years.
In the longer term, the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, a private nonprofit organization that supports the city’s library system, has won major national foundation support for its efforts to boost public literacy and mend damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when flooding destroyed thousands of books and wrecked several neighborhood library branches.
One of the driving forces on the library foundation’s board has been Irvin Mayfield, the 37-year-old Grammy-award winning leader of the acclaimed New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin appointed Mayfield the city’s Cultural Ambassador when he was still in his 20s, and he was at the forefront of succesful efforts to wring donations for the library foundation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Shell, Target, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Oprah’s Angel Network, among others listed on the library foundation’s website.
But now Mayfield’s sterling reputation has a fresh coat of tarnish. Earlier this week WWL-TV broadcast an explosive report by correspondent David Hammer alleging that Mayfield and orchestra CEO Ronald Markham had engineered a shift of $863,000 from the library foundation, where both men are unpaid board members, to Peoples Health Jazz Market, the new $10 million home for the jazz orchestra that pays both of their salaries.
After the story broke, city residents reacted with anger, puzzlement, and sadness.
“It ain’t easy in the Big Easy,” rhythm-and-blues bandleader Deacon John, and president of the musicians’ union, told The Daily Beast. “I’m deeply saddened about the allegations surrounding Mr. Mayfield. I hope he can bring about a quick resolution to his problem. He has done a lot of good for musicians by providing employment.”
Mayfield has not responded to the media since the story broke, but Markham told Hammer that the diverted funds were used for a satellite installation of the library housed in the Jazz Market’s gleaming ground floor space in a former department store in an impoverished neighborhood undergoing gentrification. [The library foundation and the city’s library system are not synonymous: the foundation is a private non-profit organization, and the library system is a public entity. The millage increase just approved by voters, for example, has nothing to do with the foundation: tax money will go straight to the library system’s budget.]
Markham told Hammer, “I can appreciate the story you’re trying to tell, but in addition to that story, what we have here is a very forward-thinking and aggressive way to expand the footprint of the actual library system at no cost to the public.”
Heretofore Mayfield has been a hero in his home town. Hammer’s reporting, which ignited a firestorm of public opinion, surfaced just two weeks after this writer’s flattering Daily Beast piece on Mayfield, Markham, and the Peoples Health Jazz Market.)
Citing 2012 public records, Hammer reported that in 2012 the library foundation gave $116,775 to “the city’s cash-strapped public library system.” But it gave a whopping $660,000 to the jazz orchestra. In 2013 the foundation gave NOJO another $197,000.
The two-year donation of $863,000 came while NOJO was in a major fundraising effort to finance the building of Jazz Market. The library funds amount to slightly less than 10 percent of the $10 million construction cost for Peoples Health Jazz Market, the home base for the orchestra.
During that time, the jazz orchestra was paying Mayfield a salary of $148,050 and Markham $100,000, according to the reports, though WWL/Advocate stories have not alleged that library foundation monies went to either of their salaries.
The transfer of funds, highly unorthodox in the nonprofit world, stemmed from a library foundation board decision in 2012 to grant “sole and uncontrolled disecretion” over its expenditures to Mayfield. Markham subsequently became chair of the library board. [From 2007-2011, Mayfield served on the boards of both the foundation and the city’s library system.]
“They also changed the organization’s articles of incorporation to expand its purpose beyond supporting just the city’s public library system,” reported Hammer. Two board members left the library foundation after the change in bylaws.
“I can’t continue to be silent,” said Robin Burgess, the respected jazz talent manager and wife of Grammy-winning composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, in a Facebook post.
“There is something fundamentally wrong with a musician pillaging the library system—like those who steal from art museums during war—robbing its citizens, particularly the youth, in a city where education is endangered and precious,” said Burgess. “The arrogance is inexcusable. There are times to think of others and not yourself.”
Changing the foundation rules to allow the $863,000 payments Mayfield approved to NOJO elicited a blistering remark from a law enforcement watchdog, Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche: “Essentially, he (Mayfield) is the dictator, he is the emperor that makes any decision and doesn’t require any type of board action,” Goyeneche said to Hammer. “And he considers it his money and he can spend it any way that he wants to.”
“It’s highly unusual that you can amend [a foundation’s] bylaws to give someone such discretion,” Pace University Law School Professor James J. Fishman told The Daily Beast.
“It’s particularly ironic because libraries are so underfunded,” said Fishman. “I think it’s a disgrace.”
Fishman is the author of The Faithless Fiduciary And the Elusive Quest for Nonprofit Accountability (2007), a book described on his biographical page as “a historical study that examines the enduring problem of opportunistic behavior by charitable fiduciaries, and the inability to create an effective system of oversight or accountability for charitable assets.”
Fishman added, “The orchestra leader engaged in a conflict of interest and the board members violated their duty of care by allowing one individual to have so much authority. You can delegate certain things, but that would seem to be an abdication to allow so much money to be basically used by someone who had a conflict of interest. I would imagine the state attorney general could come in and undo that transaction; but I don’t know Louisiana law”—meaning the Napoleonic code—“which is different from the rest of the states. It still doesn’t pass the smell test.”
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s board of directors also has a fiduciary responsibility, it would seem, under the terms Fishman outlined. The NOJO board chair, Ron Forman, is a fabled rainmaker in New Orleans politics and civic life and the longtime president of the Audubon Institute, which oversees the city zoo. Daniel Packer, a former CEO of Entergy, the public utility, is vice president.
Mayfield himself sits on the board, along with former CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien, political celebrity Mary Matalin, and 14 other local movers and shakers. Apart from Mayfield, how much did those people know about all that money? And how will the NOJO board respond to the news?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this article posted, WWL TV reported that New Orleans Jazz Orchestra CEO Ronald Markham has resigned his position on the board of the public library foundation.
In a further development, Mayor Mitch Landrieu released a statement to the station explaining that he had met with the orchestra board and Library Foundation Board, and, "I fully expect the following to occur as soon as possible:
- A complete separation between NOJO and the Library Foundation;
- A complete rewriting of the Library Foundation's bylaws to require that Foundation funds are spent solely on the Library;
- A full auditing and accounting of the Foundation funds;
- A full refund of all Foundation dollars that were allocated to NOJO and not spent on Library purposes; and,
- A complete reorganization of the Foundation Board in keeping with the best practices of transparency and accountability."
Jason Berry’s books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz, a New Orleans music history, and Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.