SPRINGFIELD-Oversight of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum — a politically charged fight that surrounds one of the state’s biggest tourism gems and that’s been on legislative hiatus since May — will resurface next week as a new round of hearings on the issue opens.
The House State Government Administration Committee will convene on Wednesday in Chicago to take up a management makeover of the museum that House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, first raised in the closing hours of the spring legislative session.
State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, chairman of the panel, voted against Madigan’s legislation but now said he wants to explore the issue more deeply and position a restructuring package for a vote next spring under a newly seated General Assembly.
Franks said he isn’t sure what that package will look like.
“I’m going to come in with an open mind,” Franks told Early & Often, the Chicago Sun-Times political portal. “There are some [plans] that have a university overseeing it. There are some that have the federal government in there. I’m concerned about the politicization of it, and I don’t want that to occur.”
Madigan proposed legislation that would have taken the Lincoln museum from beneath the umbrella of the state Historic Preservation Agency and created an autonomous new agency to oversee it. The measure passed the House in May but stalled in the state Senate.
“When Madigan tried to pass that bill,” Franks said, “it sort of came out of nowhere. I was unaware of the problems and voted no. I didn’t understand what the problems were and whether the solution was a solution or not. I didn’t want the cure to be worse than the problem.”
Franks said he wants to hear from the state Historic Preservation Agency board, the library and museum’s own advisory board, and the board of the foundation that raises money for the library and museum.
“There are three separate boards that aren’t working in concert and with different agendas. It seems like there are conflicts of interests and questionable things being done,” Franks said. “I’m concerned about the long-term viability of this institution, and it’s too important to leave to chance.”
Madigan is friends with the executive director of museum, Elaine Mackevich, and her long-time friend, Stanley Balzekas Jr., who also happens to be the landlord of the speaker’s district office.
The speaker has said he wasn’t influenced to run his bill because of his friendship with Mackevich and Balzekas. Instead, the speaker cited unfilled jobs at the facility and the complex being hamstrung by having to run all of its decisions through the state Historic Preservation Agency. Madigan has said the museum should be allowed to “chart its own destiny.”
Franks said he does not consider Madigan’s involvement in the matter to be a conflict of interest given his ties to Mackevich and Balzekas.
“None at all. I think he was doing his job,” Franks said of the speaker. “I don’t see any conflict at all. But I think he was right to bring it forward, and it needed to be vetted.”
One of the things Franks said he is troubled by at the museum is the sketchy provenance of a purported stovepipe hat the museum says belonged to Lincoln. Valued at $6.5 million, the hat was purchased by the museum’s foundation as part of a $23 million haul of Lincoln memorabilia acquired from West Coast collector Louise Taper, but the foundation has been struggling to pay off the debt from the purchase.
The hat once belonged to an Illinois farm family, who contended its patriarch traveled to Washington during the Civil War and was given the hat as a token of appreciation for his political support of the president.
But that story handed down within the family can’t be corroborated, so the museum altered the timeline so Lincoln gave the hat to the farmer during an 1858 swing through Southern Illinois. That story can’t be corroborated, either, raising serious questions about the hat’s authenticity.
“You talk about the provenance,” Franks continued, alluding to the hat. “You talk about they took on such a huge amount of debt [to purchase the Taper items], and they now can’t help fund the museum, which is what they’re supposed to be doing as a foundation.
“They haven’t even turned over the [Taper] artifacts to the actual museum. Nor is the museum even accredited. These are major things. If you’re looking long-term, down the road, we need to fix this now,” Franks said.
“You look at the foundation, and they’ve done a lot of good things, but you look at the politics. How many times do we have to see Bill Cellini and Julie Cellini’s faces on painted pictures at the museum? That’s a problem,” Franks said, referring to the foundation’s past chairwoman, Julie Cellini, and her husband, who was imprisoned for taking part in a fundraising shakedown designed to benefit Rod Blagojevich.
The pair is included in wall paintings that have been on display since the museum’s opening and that depict significant moments in Lincoln’s life. William Cellini’s painted likeness can be seen peering over the shoulder of Lincoln in one painting, going over results from the 1860 presidential election.
“This place should be devoid of all politics completely,” Franks said, “but it’s not.”