02 March 2009 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 1 comment

From the February 27 edition of the on-line version of The National Journal:

Park Service Employees Allege Pressure on Gettysburg Project
Interior IG Is Investigating The Gettysburg Superintendent’s Role In Developing A Massive New Battlefield Museum

by Edward T. Pound

Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

The senior construction program manager for the National Park Service says that an agency panel rejected a staff recommendation to scale back plans and cut costs for a massive new museum and visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park after political pressure was exerted at the highest levels.

“We were rolled,” Michael D. LeBorgne told National Journal. LeBorgne, along with another staffer, Roger K. Brown, made the recommendation on Gettysburg to an important Park Service advisory board in 2003 while the museum project was still on the drawing board. Brown, the senior program analyst for construction before his retirement last year, told NJ: “Clearly, there was political pressure brought to bear. It wasn’t even subtle.”

Their objections, they said, were shunted aside and the new museum project — 139,000 square-feet and costing, in the end, $103 million — was given the go-ahead by the Park Service’s Development Advisory Board, or DAB. LeBorgne and Brown said the DAB acted after then-Park Service Director Fran Mainella showed up at the proceeding. She attended only one other DAB meeting during the entire five-and-a-half years she was director, they said.

“I am quite sure,” Brown said, “that the director’s presence intimidated the board.” In an interview, Mainella said she was only “trying to better understand how the DAB process worked” and was not trying to pressure the panel.

The staff members’ charges came in the wake of a National Journal story detailing conflicts over the Gettysburg project, including the proceedings before the Park Service’s advisory board. The superintendent at Gettysburg, John A. Latschar, went to higher-ups after LeBorgne and Brown raised concerns in October 2003 about the project in a discussion with Latschar and a project architect.

Latschar’s central role in developing the museum and visitor center now is under scrutiny by the inspector general of the Interior Department, which includes the Park Service. IG Earl Devaney is investigating Latschar’s dealings with the Gettysburg Foundation, the nonprofit that developed the museum project in partnership with the Park Service. Devaney’s investigators are also reviewing whether Latschar misused $8,700 in park and private funds to construct a fence on parkland adjacent to his home. Latschar has strongly denied acting improperly and said that he is confident he will be cleared by investigators.

In more than 14 years at Gettysburg, site of the most well-known battle of the Civil War, Latschar has engaged in repeated conflicts with critics, principally over his role in developing the new museum to replace an older facility.

This week, Richard R. Hohmann, the president of the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides, called on Congress to explore possible “abuses” and “malfeasance” in the project’s development. Hohmann, whose members conduct tours of the Gettysburg battlefield, requested a congressional oversight hearing in letters to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Rep. Todd Platts, a Republican whose district includes Gettysburg.

Hohmann said Congress should also take a hard look at “possible ethics violations” in light of news reports that raised questions about Latschar’s conduct. Hohmann, who has clashed with Latschar over issues related to the guides’ organization, also pointedly noted in his letter to Platts that the lawmaker had received campaign donations from Robert Kinsley, the chairman of the Gettysburg Foundation and head of a company that oversaw construction of the new museum facility. “We hope you will put aside any conflicts of interest,” Hohmann wrote, “and do your elected duty.”

Hohmann wrote in his letter to Platts that there has been “virtually no oversight” of the Gettysburg museum project for 10 years while the Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation “proceeded under a veil of secrecy.” Both Platts’ and Casey’s offices said they would review the issues raised by Hohmann before commenting further. Latschar declined to comment on Hohmann’s criticisms.

But Latschar and others involved in the museum project, including Kinsley, have strongly defended their actions in developing the new facility. Both Latschar and Kinsley told National Journal that the new museum allowed them to convey much more clearly Gettysburg’s story and the battle’s consequences. The old museum, scheduled to be demolished, did not do justice to the historical importance and emotional power of Gettysburg, they added.

“We only had one chance to do this,” Latschar said, “and we wanted to do it right, as befits this hallowed ground.”

Kinsley has donated nearly $8.4 million to the foundation through his own family foundation, his personal funds and Kinsley-owned partnerships, according to foundation officials.

But two companies affiliated with Kinsley have also worked on the museum project; the foundation has paid those firms a total of $8,509,825. Kinsley’s company, Kinsley Construction, provided construction management “at cost” and at “no profit,” he and foundation officials have explained. Another company, LSC Design, headed by one of his sons, Robert II, was paid to provide program management and architectural services to the Gettysburg Foundation.

Criticism of the new museum, which opened last April, has centered on its size and cost. Critics argue that the Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation misled the public.

Initially, the museum and visitor center carried a price tag of $39.3 million. Latschar and the Park Service repeatedly maintained that the project would not need government assistance. In his speeches years ago, Latschar said this about how the project would be funded: A “nonprofit corporation will be formed. Approximately 55 percent of the total project cost ($22 million) will be raised from donations, grants, and corporate sponsorships, while the remaining 45 percent ($18 million) will be borrowed.”

As it turned out, the Gettysburg Foundation spent $15 million in earmarked federal money to restore an oil painting-in-the round known as the Cyclorama, which is housed in the new facility. The Pennsylvania state government also poured $20 million into the museum development, and the foundation raised $68 million privately.

The Park Service and the foundation also did not plan to charge an admission fee to see the artifacts and museum exhibits. But four months after opening the new facility and projecting an annual revenue shortfall of nearly $1.8 million, a $7.50 admission fee was imposed; the fee also allows visitors to see the Cyclorama painting and a 22-minute feature film.

Looking back on the history of the project, one of the most important events took place in October 2003 when Latschar, Robert Kinsley II and the two senior staff members of the Park Service’s Development Advisory Board discussed the scale and cost of the project over the phone. At the time, according to Latschar, the younger Kinsley’s LSC Design provided “program management services” to the Gettysburg Foundation.

In the phone conversation, the DAB staffers — LeBorgne and Brown — made it clear that they thought, based on their analysis, that the project should be scaled back. According to Brown, he and LeBorgne expressed the view that “the scale of the design was too monumental.” He explained: “The best Park Service in-park design is something that fits into the landscape and doesn’t draw attention to itself.” He said that he and LeBorgne felt that there were “plenty of monuments at Gettysburg without adding” another.

LeBorgne, a 35-year veteran of the Park Service, told National Journal that, based on the agency’s models, a reasonable size for the facility would have been about 62,000 square feet. Figuring in another 20,000 square feet for foundation offices, a restaurant and book shop, LeBorgne said, the project would have been much smaller than the 139,000 square-foot-facility that eventually was built.

He said that he and Brown also raised concerns, in the phone conversation with Latschar and Robert Kinsley II, about the Kinsleys working on the project since the senior Kinsley was chairman of the Gettysburg Foundation board. Further, he said, they expressed concerns that the Gettysburg Foundation would not develop sufficient revenue to cover operational costs.

LeBorgne said it was his understanding that foundation officials believed that the museum-visitor center would be “totally self-supporting” and not require a public admission fee. And Brown said: “It wasn’t clear that the project would be adequately supported by revenue.”

Latschar disputed their account. In e-mail responses to National Journal questions, he said that he did not recall the DAB staffers raising either conflict-of-interest concerns or possible revenue shortfalls in the October 2003 phone conversation.

While the younger Kinsley was working on the project at the time, Latschar said that the Kinsley companies did not take on construction management and design-service responsibilities until late 2004, almost a year later. Robert Kinsley II did not return a phone call from National Journal seeking comment.

After the contentious phone call, Latschar said that he complained to Park Service higher-ups, including then-Director Mainella, about the staffers’ “unprofessional behavior.” With Mainella in attendance on Nov. 4, the DAB rejected the advice of LeBorgne and Brown and approved the project. Had the staffers prevailed, the project would have been reduced in size and cost, according to LeBorgne.

“The DAB is a very professional board and usually supports staff recommendations,” LeBorgne said, “so it was somewhat unusual for us to be rolled on this so easily.” Brown said that he concluded that Mainella attended the meeting to ensure that DAB members — a majority of whom worked for her — approved the large-scale project.

“I don’t recall her saying anything,” Brown said of Mainella. “She didn’t have to. It was very evident, just looking around at the board members’ faces, that they were stunned that she was there.”

In an interview, Mainella denied using her position to pressure the DAB. “Some employees feel that pressure when you show up,” she explained, “but that was not my intention.” She added that she was “very supportive” of the Gettysburg project.

What a cesspool of conflicts of interests this situation is…..

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Randy
    Tue 03rd Mar 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Eric:
    Cesspool indeed. The conflicts of interest noted in the article are mind boggling. I’ve got to wonder how the heck Latshar has attained the power he seems to have; he seems untouchable. I just don’t get it, but I’ll probably not be thinking about the new VC too much anymore anyway. Because of the size, the lack of Gettysburg artifacts, the political correctness run amuck, the lousy film, the fact that they now charge admission and the bookless bookstore, I’ve made my first and last visit to that turkey. Hope the Latshar dealings finally come to light. What a shame.

    Randy

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