Grammy-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield still isn't talking about the deal he orchestrated to transfer $863,000 from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) in 2012 and 2013. But just about everyone else can't stop talking about it — for good reason. Mayfield sat on both boards at the time (he chaired the library foundation board and still sits on NOJO's board), which posed a glaring conflict of interest. The library foundation money reportedly helped build the newly opened People's Health Jazz Market, a very worthy project — and NOJO's new home.
The Jazz Market's worthiness doesn't obviate Mayfield's conflict of interest, however. NOJO pays Mayfield a six-figure salary, which raises questions about whether he profited from the transfer. Mayfield's friend, NOJO President Ronald Markham, also sat on the library foundation board at the time, voted for the transfer and likewise is highly compensated by NOJO. At a minimum, both boards should have scrutinized this deal more closely than they apparently did.
After WWL-TV's David Hammer exposed the deal earlier this month, Markham resigned from the library foundation board, which subsequently severed ties with "chairman emeritus" Mayfield as well. Mayfield remains on NOJO's board. Hammer reported last week that the feds are now looking into the deal. Markham has insisted there was nothing wrong with spending library foundation funds on the Jazz Market, which he describes as a repository for jazz studies.
Markham misses the point. The New Orleans Public Library has been cash-strapped for years. After Hurricane Katrina, donors across America gave generously to the library foundation believing the money would go toward libraries — not to Mayfield and Markham's pet project. Moreover, on May 2, New Orleans voters approved a property tax increase for the city's library system.
It's important to remember that the public library's budget is completely separate from the library foundation's endowment. The private foundation also plays no role in running the public library.
After more embarrassing stories (and encouragement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu), the NOJO board voted last week to return the money to the library foundation — but first it will have to raise the money. Here's a better idea: If the money isn't raised by Dec. 1, NOJO should borrow what's needed to fully repay the library foundation this year. This sad song needs to end.
Meanwhile, Mayfield owes both boards — and the public — an apology. He also owes an apology to library employees, who spent weeks rallying the community to approve the May 2 millage. And both boards owe everyone a full explanation of how and why this all happened.
Unfortunately, NOJO and Mayfield still don't recognize there's even a problem here. The orchestra issued a statement last week saying, "NOJO and its Board of Directors are disappointed in misperceptions about the appropriateness of a relationship between a public library and a musical heritage, cultural and performing arts center."
There are no misperceptions. Mayfield's conflict of interest violated universally accepted ethical norms for nonprofits — and possibly federal law. He should resign from NOJO's board, admit that the transfer was inappropriate and apologize. Anything short of that will cost NOJO, Mayfield and the Jazz Market dearly in the long run.