The Mouse That Roared Part 2

At the conclusion of Part 1, the community advocates at Save Richmond were just beginning to discover apparent discrepancies in the financial information claimed by the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation (VAPAF). In an attempt to verify the VAPAF’s financial status, they took an unusual step of filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the VAPAF…

Unfortunately, Save Richmond’s first FOIA request was rejected by the VAPAF (you can download a ..txt copy of the request here), the Foundation’s president & CEO, Brad Armstrong, sent Andrew the following email in response to the FOIA request:

Andrew,

As you know, the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation is not a public body. Your demand is respectfully denied.

Brad

Even with that denial, Andrew said they continued to feel that they should have access to copies of the VAPAF’s official statements from any and all financial institutions with which the Foundation has accounts stating the Foundation’s funds available, bills and/or accounts payable by the Foundation in amounts exceeding $500.00, and official statements from any and all financial institutions with which the Foundation has accounts that reflect the transfer of funds to the Foundation from the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts.

Save Richmond continued to maintain an official position based on a simple idea that the VAPAF should make these documents available as a result of the Foundation’s status as a charitable organization, supported principally by public funds. Therefore, it has an obligation to be transparent in its activities.

After their rejection email from the VAPAF President & CEO, Andrew and Don attempted to have the Commonwealth of Virginia determine the VAPAF’s status as either a private or public entity.

“We filled an adjudication request with the State’s Freedom of Information Council to determine if the VAPAF was a public or private foundation,” said Andrew. “They said that we sent them too much information and deferred to rule.”

After that, Andrew said they weren’t sure exactly what they could do. But then they went back to their official position and used that to look at the scenario from different viewpoints. They determined that since they continued to believe the VAPAF should make their records open to public scrutiny because they receive a majority of their funding from taxpayer dollars, then they could simply approach the government institutions responsible for giving the VAPAF funds.

That’s when Andrew and Don did something extraordinarily clever.

“The VAPAF got a matching funds grant from a state program,” said Andrew. “So we filled a FOIA request with the Department of Historic Resources, who was responsible for issuing the large grant to the VAPAF. We figured that since the VAPAF had to make all of the information we were looking for available to the Department of Historic Resources in order to obtain the grant, we could just ask the Department of Historic Resources for the information. That worked astonishingly well and we got the copies of everything the VAPAF submitted to them. We quickly posted all of this information on our website, [naturally, they blocked out bank account numbers, private contact info, etc.].”

It was at this point in time that the Save Richmond mouse found its roar. The daily hits at Save Richmond exploded and their actions garnered immediate attention among many within the Richmond City Government. The VAPAF even started to behave differently. Andrew said,

“Once Doug Wilder became mayor it was apparent that someone in his office liked our blog. We know they scrutinized the VAPAF bank info we published. We also noticed that much of the VAPAF information we put up at Save Richmond was being talked about by the mayor within a day or two and reported in the mainstream press immediately afterward.”

Encouraged by the results from the Department of Historic Resources FOIA request, Andrew and Don began to submit FOIA requests to the city government in order to obtained copies of expenditures the Foundation submitted to the city for reimbursement. Andrew said those monthly statements showed a disturbing pattern of spending activity and very different overall picture than the information they had on file from VAPAF bank statements,

“Eventually the VAPAF said they would make monthly financial statements to the city council but that info was very different than the bank statements we received. We knew something was going on due to these discrepancies because all of the construction equipment left the building site after most of the demolition was completed. A growing picture was emerging after we posted all of this information that the VAPAF was spending all this money but not producing anything.”

Andrew and Don both agree that much of the problems they perceive within the VAPAF are based on what they observed during their initial meeting with VAPAF executive council members in the break room of one of Jim Ukrop’s grocery stores.

“I think it all comes back to the fact that the folks on the executive committee at the VAPAF don’t really know what they’re doing. As a taxpayer it’s galling to think that these people have been living high on public funds all this time without really knowing what they are doing or producing anything.”

The mainstream media in Richmond has been highlighting the very public struggle between Richmond mayor, Doug Wilder, and the executive committee of the VAPAF for the past several months. Furthermore, numerous points made by the mayor or representatives from his office have originally appeared in one form or another on Save Richmond’s blog. Given that fact I asked Andrew if he was concerned that information and opinions published on their site may not be accurate. Andrew said,

“I am a full time journalist and I’m very familiar with writing laws distinguishing between opinion and fact.”

Andrew did go on to say that he has received messages from individuals in Richmond who think he’s anti-arts or anti-music. Andrew said he’s noticed that Mayor Wilder has been accused of the same thing in the press but that he doesn’t believe either of them is anti-arts at all.

“I think Mayor Wilder is showing so much interest in these issues because he sees the VAPAF and their project as a symbol of the detrimental way things have been done here with a ‘trust me’ mentality Richmond has been known for. Since he’s the first mayor with powers greater than city council he’s going after these issues of waste without delay.

As for Don and me, we’re not anti-arts in the least. Don and I have received complaints from arts groups involved in the Alliance, mostly from administrators, but only from a handful of individuals. Much of the complaints center around the fact that they say we’re not a 501c3 and therefore shouldn’t have a voice in these issues. But I do think nonprofits do themselves a major disservice by not being transparent on their own and forcing people to file FOIA requests to obtain information that should be easily accessible doesn’t help.”

In addition to the VAPAF information obtained through FOIA requests, Save Richmond also publishes copies of the VAPAF’s IRS Form 990’s, all of which were acquired from GuideStar except for the most recent one. Andrew said the VAPAF did provide that information upon request but he quickly noticed that the VAPAF did not block out personal donor information, a practice conducted by the IRS and GuideStar when distributing that information.

The Third Member Of The Duet?
The work conducted at Save Richmond is an excellent example of just how much an individual can do if they feel strongly enough about something. I asked Andrew how he feels about all that’s happened and he said,

“We’ve spent less than $250 over two years since we started the blog to do everything we’ve done. And this little amount has impacted a multimillion dollar project. I’m amazed that a couple of guys with a blog can make such an impact but at the same time it’s great. I also think the VAPAF project is done because their ability to raise money has been degraded by the info that’s come out publicly.”

In my email communication with Don Harrison, he pointed out that some of the best work at Save Richmond is conducted by an anonymous individual only known as “Eagle Eyes”. The Save Richmond blog describes this individual as the “shadowy, anonymous, well-born Richmonder who sees all, knows all and, most important, and understands how to parse financial data.”

You only have to read a few of the posts written by “Eagle Eyes” to begin to get the feeling that the brief bio doesn’t begin to do the individual justice when it refers to their understanding of how to parse financial data. Here’s a good representative example of why those accolades are accurate.

Don also pointed out that additional credit for their ability to impact the proceedings in Richmond are due to the vast amounts of involvement from local individuals participating in online discussions. In particular, there’s been an ongoing discussion thread at the Richmond City Watch Discussion Forum; a Richmond,VA Photographic & Architecture Database.

The discussion thread, entitled, Dr. Florida & The Virginia Performing Arts Center, has garnered continued participation since December 16, 2002. At the time of this article’s publishing, the thread has had 1,669 replies and over 52,244 views. Among the regular participants are Don Harrison and Andrew Beaujon but you’ll also find individuals such as Joel Katz, a former executive manager for the VAPAF who, since leaving the organization, has publicly criticized how his former organization manages their affairs.

But you won’t find the entire discussion thread dominated by those with concerns over the VAPAF; you’ll also find posts from supporters of the VAPAF such as Richmond Symphony Executive Director, David Fisk, who was interviewed last week here at Adaptistration.

Conclusions
I concluded my interview with Andrew by asking him what he thought would make the current situation better and if he thought there was a point at which he and Don would stop operating the Save Richmond blog.

“I think the VAPAF will need to restructure the entire project from scratch and bring in new people to run the foundation in order for them to have any credibility. Even getting back to zero would be preferable to where we are now,” said Andrew. “We’d love to stop and let someone take over. But every time I get to the point of giving up something egregious happens and the mainstream media isn’t stepping up to do what they should be doing. It’s all about civic responsibility.”

If nothing else, this situation in Richmond demonstrates the value of institutional transparency and just how much impact a few empowered patrons can have on a nonprofit institution.

For those orchestral organizations that choose to hedge their bets regarding whether or not to institute measures to increase institutional transparency, you could get lucky and never have anyone request access to your records. Or, you could end up like the VAPAF and have a couple of concerned community advocates discover ways to compel the information they desire. Either way, the real benefit is that this serves as yet another example behind why it pays to keep clean books and avoid exaggerations or spin-laced comments to the public.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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