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Probe finds Connecticut Landmarks did not misuse historic home funds

January 7, 2019

The state attorney general’s office has found that Connecticut Landmarks did not misappropriate any charitable funds in its stewardship of Forge Farm in Stonington and a historic home in East Hampton.

It added, though, that it would like Connecticut Landmarks to better address the intent of donors and preservation of properties under its control.

The AG launched an investigation of the nonprofit organization’s finance last year after complaints from citizens and a series of stories by The Day’s columnist David Collins that raised questions about the group’s care of the two homes and its use of endowment funds. 

In releasing the report Friday, Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn, who oversaw the investigation, said, “Our office has completed a comprehensive review of Connecticut Landmarks’ use of charitable funds, consistent with the Attorney General’s statutory authority to safeguard charitable assets. Connecticut Landmarks was forthcoming with information, and we have appreciated their cooperation throughout our review. We found no evidence of misappropriation of charitable funds, but have identified areas where we would like to see Connecticut Landmarks better address donor intent and the management and preservation of both its real and personal property. Accordingly, we are issuing this report today, but the matter will remain open within our office so that we can monitor the organization’s progress in the areas of need we have identified.”

Outgoing Attorney General George Jepsen had recused himself from the investigation because he had hosted a past fundraiser for the group at his home.

Connecticut Landmarks also issued a statement stating that “it accepts the report of the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General (OAG). After reviewing the recommendations provided by the OAG, CTL will immediately initiate any recommended procedural and administrative changes contained in the review. CTL will promptly inform the OAG of the steps taken to comply with their recommendations so that the OAG may conclude its inquiry.”

Collins first wrote about Landmarks’ care of its properties last winter, after a neighbor of the organization’s Forge Farm property on Al Harvey Road complained it had been badly neglected despite an endowment of more than $1.5 million.

Collins wrote that a former board president of Landmarks once complained in a letter to fellow board members that the organization was ruining a historically precise restoration of the property by replacing the custom wooden windows and roof with badly installed vinyl and asphalt substitutes.

At the time questions were being raised about Forge Farm, the attorney general also was reviewing a request by Landmarks to sell the farm and keep its endowment, a plan the organization has since abandoned.

The attorney general’s office widened its review of Landmarks and Forge Farm after Collins reported on two East Haddam properties that had been donated to Connecticut Landmarks but were in disrepair.

A 1738 mansion, known as the Palmer-Warner House, had never been regularly open to the public as a house museum, as donor Howard Metzger envisioned in his will, and the buildings had been allowed to deteriorate while money from the funds left for its upkeep was spent on other Landmarks properties.

While it was not part of the attorney general’s probe, Collins reported that the 1816 Amasa Day House in East Haddam, which is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has not been open to the public for many years despite having an endowment for its care.

Last summer Landmarks officials pledged to continue to invest in Forge Farm and be more transparent with their plans for it during a meeting with neighbors and supporters. 

In its summary of findings, the attorney general’s office found that while Landmarks “properly installed” vinyl windows and an asphalt roof in 2008 at Forge Farm because not doing so would have damaged the house, it should have replaced the vinyl windows and asphalt roof with period-appropriate replacements thereafter so they would be consistent with early American architecture, as was the intent of Virginia Berry, who donated the house.

In its summary, the attorney general states that Connecticut Landmarks has already replaced the asphalt roof with cedar shingles and contracted for the replacement of the vinyl windows. It adds that Connecticut Landmarks “should continue its work on the Forge Farm house so that it is a representative example of early American architecture, consistent with donor intent.”

The attorney general also found that Connecticut Landmarks made “reasonable decisions regarding where and when to focus its energies in handling multiple issues at several of the properties it owns, which resulted in the deferral of the full development of the Palmer-Warner Property into a house museum and exhibit space.” The attorney general’s summary states that Connecticut Landmarks “should continue all renovation, development, and cataloging activity at the Palmer-Warner Property with the goal of fully developing the Property to preserve its historic character and to provide access to the public.”

It added, though, that Connecticut Landmarks did not have an adequate comprehensive program in place to identify and report maintenance and preservation problems at its various properties.

The attorney general’s summary states that the Connecticut Landmarks Board of Trustees should review its policies to ensure that all property it owns “is sufficiently protected from the natural elements, regardless of the Board’s current focus, so that any future issues of deterioration are identified and addressed quickly.”

It adds that Landmarks should create an inspection schedule and identify a person to inspect each of the organization’s properties on a regular basis. That person should report to the Board of Trustees at each of their meetings.

The attorney general also found that Connecticut Landmarks “wrongly interpreted the proper use of charitable funds in two instances” by improperly relying on an accounting rule that directs income to be treated as unrestricted assets unless the donor specifically states that income should be restricted.”

The attorney general also recommended that Connecticut Landmarks should develop “more productive relationships with local area historical preservation societies. The attorney general will also keep its inquiry open until it has had an opportunity to review and approve Connecticut Landmarks’ actions in response to the conclusions.

j.wojtas@theday.com

 

 

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