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Concerns Circulate at Latino Museum

Art * Memos blame cash-strapped museum's management for wasting golden opportunities to gain grants and gifts.


Internal documents and former and current board members of the debt-ridden Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture claim that the institution's management has mishandled its financial affairs and squandered numerous fund-raising opportunities to keep the museum afloat.

In memos and letters obtained by The Times, museum board treasurer Jess Sotomayor, who resigned in June, current board member Juan Gomez-Quinones, and a volunteer fund-raiser state that the failure to provide coherent and complete financial statements to potential donors has not only doomed efforts to raise money but continues to imperil the 2-year-old museum's future.

Museum director Denise Lugo denied that the museum failed to produce financial information. She also said she had not seen the fund-raising memo. Lugo said all requested information that she knew about had been delivered to potential donors.

"We presented the [financial] information at the board meetings and all of it is here [at the museum] all of the time," said Lugo, who was named interim director in 1996 and promoted to director in 1998. "I've done the best I can."

Museum board chairman Charles Calderon, a former state senator, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

In August, the museum admitted to being at least five months in arrears on several hundred thousand dollars of debt and employee salaries. Since opening its doors in 1998 after an 11-year campaign to get established, it has operated with a skeleton staff and mounted an inconsistent schedule of exhibitions. Lugo, a former college art professor, had no museum administration experience when she was named to the post of director at the museum. There has never been a full-time director of development on staff, despite a $13-million fund-raising goal set by Calderon in 1998.

When the museum's money woes came to light in August, Calderon and Lugo said they were relying on the California Legislature to reallocate $1.6 million in state funds that already had been earmarked for the museum. The state had granted the money in 1999 and 2000, but the funds were meant for educational and capital expenses only. The reallocation bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Hills) passed in late August. Gov. Gray Davis has until Sept. 30 to sign it into law.

In June, board member Sotomayor resigned, citing the financial situation. "I am tired of asking and not knowing what's going on financially," wrote Sotomayor, a corporate attorney, in his resignation letter to Calderon. "While I do not believe . . . any improprieties are occurring, it does leave me with concerns. At this juncture I would like to believe that these failures are attributable to the inability of the Museum's management to perform its functions."

In an August memo addressed to Lugo and Calderon, Gomez-Quinones, a professor of history at UCLA, charged that that no one seemed to be accountable for the finances at the museum.

"As yet, [the museum] has not received a substantial grant from a cultural agency, institution or foundation," he wrote. "The state of [the museum's] finances and how financing was conducted is . . . an incomplete puzzle. . . . Hopefully [the museum] can survive [its] debts."

Missing Paperwork, Missed Opportunities

A March internal memo from a volunteer fund-raiser reported that the institution's inability to provide coherent financial information and grant proposal paperwork derailed hoped-for donations from the Rockefeller Foundation and Union Bank of California, and potential gifts of $1 million apiece from three unnamed private sources.

In addition, the fund-raising memo, which Gomez-Quinones also refers to in his memo, states that the museum was denied funding by 18 other corporations and four foundations--including the Walt Disney Co., Coca-Cola and the Ford Foundation--because it was unable to follow required guidelines and meet deadlines.

According to the fund-raising memo, in conversations in February the Rockefeller Foundation agreed to "waive the yearlong approval process for grants" and provide an unspecified amount of money for the museum's Cesar Chavez photo exhibit, which opened in March.

"We were very interested in the idea," said Rockefeller Foundation program officer Tomas Ybarra-Fausto. "But we never got a proposal."

Lugo said she sent in a proposal.

The March memo also cites Union Bank of California as eager to provide a donation for educational programs. Again, necessary documents were not forthcoming, according to the memo and executives at the bank.

Lugo said she was not aware of a request for information from Union Bank.

The memo further states that "three key individuals" were interested in donating $1 million each.

The volunteer fund-raiser, who did not want to be identified, said in an interview that Lugo did not follow up and the donors lost interest.

Lugo says she never knew of the individual donors.

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