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Illinois lawmakers eye audit of Lincoln foundation over hat controversy

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Wednesday, October 3, 2018  |  Article  |  By Greg Bishop

Historic Preservation, historic sites (50) , Libraries/literacy (80c)

A member of the Illinois Legislative Audit Commission is looking to get the state’s Auditor General to review the operations of the private foundation that supports the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

State lawmakers also are considering whether other such entities need similar examination.

The ALPLM Foundation has come under scrutiny after a report revealed the private group for years held back official documents calling into question the claim a stovepipe hat the library holds was worn by the slain 16th President.

That is raising big questions about how the private foundation that supports the state-funded library operates. State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, serves on the Legislative Audit Commission. He’s evaluated if an auditor general review could shed some light on the issue.

“An audit might help us understand deficiencies in the current structure that could be addressed through changes in state law,” Barickman said.

One report from Chicago Public Media was that the foundation went behind the state-operated library’s back to have the FBI conduct DNA tests on the hat. That produced a report calling into question the authenticity of the claims the hat ever belonged to Lincoln.

State Rep. Tim Butler said the foundation then held the report secret while lobbying for tax dollars to pay a multi-million debt for various artifacts.

Butler, R-Springfield, said as someone who financially supports the foundation’s mission to preserve Lincoln history, it’s upsetting.

“If you’re raising money as the foundation and you’ve known that this report existed, I do have a problem with that,” Butler said.

State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, introduced a bill to require the foundation to comply with state open records laws and open meetings laws.

“That foundation is siphoning off bookstore profits, rental profits, leasing arrangement profits and selling memberships as well. And so we need some accountability with the money they collect,” Ives said.

The state already budgets $11 million for the ALPLM, she said. The foundation was created to support the library and museum operations, not the other way around, Ives said. 

Barickman said the fact the private foundation gets any shared resources or revenue from the state-run museum, or from its gift shop and restaurant, means taxpayers should be able to follow the money, but right now they can’t.

A House committee plans a hearing on the issue sometime during veto session next month, but a date has yet to be set. Butler, whose district includes the library, said he’d like to get to the bottom of the issue sooner rather than later. Ives said she wants to know how the foundation operates and how it uses state resources.

Ives, Butler and Barickman said they think other foundations that support public entities while sharing resources or revenues should be required to comply with the state's Freedom of Information Act, including the newly created Illinois State Fair Foundation and private nonprofits that support public universities.

The ALPLM foundation made national headlines earlier this year when it started up a GoFundMe campaign to “Save Lincoln Artifacts!”

“As the [Chicago] Tribune has reported, [Lincoln’s] presidential seal, stovepipe hat, locks of his hair, gloves he carried with him the night of the assassination – stained with the very blood he spilled that this nation might have a new birth of freedom – could regrettably be moving closer to the auction block,” a fundraising pitch for the campaign said.

The foundation must pay $9.7 million of a $25 million loan for a collection of more than 1,000 Lincoln artifacts – including the hat – by next year or it might have to default on the line of credit and auction off artifacts.

The hat’s value as part of that $25 million loan isn't clear. In 2007, the hat was appraised at $6.5 million, but with its authenticity in question, and revelations it was appraised at $15,000 in 1988, it’s unclear how much it's worth.