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Conflict of Interest Issue Raised in Museum Talks : Alatorre Asks Attorney General to Check Family Ties on Boards

November 10, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre asked the state attorney general's office on Monday to review actions of the boards of directors of the Southwest Museum and the County Museum of Natural History, contending family relationships may have played a role in initiating controversial merger negotiations between the two institutions.

Alatorre's office said the councilman had asked Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp to determine if a formal investigation is warranted in view of the presence on both boards of members of some of the same families. Alatorre said he had asked Van de Kamp to review possible "conflicts of interest" by board members who may have authorized merger negotiations.

Three members of one family serve on the two different boards, said physician Norman Sprague, president of the Southwest Museum board. His daughter, Caryll Mingst, is also a Southwest Museum director. Sprague's son-in-law and Ms. Mingst's husband, William Mingst, is a trustee of the county museum.

Sprague said in a telephone interview on Monday that he was unaware of other family duplications on the two boards and said emphatically that his family's situation does not constitute a conflict of interest. He said his son-in-law had served on the county museum board for some time and his daughter was added to the Southwest board because a Sprague family foundation had given heavily to the institution. Sprague has been president of the Southwest board since 1980.

Alatorre's move came after he met Monday morning with Patrick Houlihan, the director of the Southwest Museum who has resigned effective Nov. 30, in part because he opposes the possible merger.

Alatorre's action was the latest development in a controversy that emerged last week with disclosure that officials of the two museums had entered into merger negotiations that could result in partial or complete shutdown of the Southwest Museum's existing public exhibit areas. The situation attracted the attention of political and community leaders who said they feared the takeover might reduce access of Latinos and less affluent residents of the Eastside to the Southwest Museum's famed American Indian cultural collections.

In other developments Monday:

--Southwest Museum and Mount Washington community leaders announced an emergency fund-raising campaign to be launched later this week to overcome budget and endowment shortfalls that brought about merger talks with the county museum. The hastily organized campaign will be called "Save Our Southwest," or "SOS."

--A meeting of the Southwest Museum's executive committee was called for today to discuss, among other things, breaking off the merger negotiations that, dissident board members charged, board president Sprague undertook without the knowledge of the board at large and even some members of its executive committee.

Sprague said the board had been aware of the "very preliminary" talks about the merger and the possible move of all or most of the 80-year-old Southwest Museum's exhibitions to a proposed facility in the San Fernando Valley.

Documents obtained by The Times indicated detailed merger plans had been drawn up as early as mid-September.

Sprague sought to discount political and community criticism of the possible takeover, prompted by fears that the existing Southwest Museum complex in Mount Washington might undergo reduction or even elimination of public exhibition facilities and even be eventually closed and sold off after the San Fernando Valley facility was constructed.

The new museum in question would probably be built in the Sepulveda Basin vicinity.

Sprague said the merger negotiations were "in abeyance" and it was "very possible" that the Southwest Museum board executive committee would vote today to terminate them. He said that, though the museum has recently faced serious operating deficits, he believes it can survive as an independent entity without being taken over by the county museum. "As a matter of fact, I'm sure that it will" survive, Sprague said.

However, a confidential draft agreement between the two museums in question spells out details of the new San Fernando Valley center as one that would contain 50,000 to 60,000 square feet--double the size of the existing Mount Washington facility--with all but 6,000 feet of the space given over to "permanent exhibits." The draft agreement was dated Sept. 19.

The San Fernando Valley exhibits would come from the Southwest Museum's extensive collection and a smaller one owned by the county museum. Estimated cost of the new center--which would acquire the Southwest Museum name--is about $12 million.

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