By Tim Bross
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Known for its collections on the Lewis & Clark expedition, aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh and the Louisiana Purchase, the Missouri History Museum is coming under fire for a more recent land deal.
St. Louis' top prosecutor has opened an investigation into reports of document shredding and unanswered questions about the museum's spending. The Missouri History Museum has been criticized for buying an acre of land from a former museum board member that the city says is worth only a fraction of the purchase price. The museum also paid its former president more than half a million dollars for unused vacation time, according to a September audit by the city.
The office of St. Louis's top prosecutor, Jennifer Joyce, confirmed an investigation was opened but declined to comment.
Alderman Joe Roddy had requested that St. Louis open a criminal probe but said he had no evidence of criminal activity. He was concerned that there were no records documenting the vacation time and by reports that museum employees had shredded documents.
The museum has been under scrutiny since September, when an audit found it had paid $875,000 for an acre of land for a proposed satellite center. No appraisal was obtained, the center was never built, and the city now values the land at $232,000.
Former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. had owned the land and was a museum board member at the time negotiations began. After the audit was released, Bosley denied there was anything improper about the land deal.
Questions also had been raised about former museum president Robert Archibald's $515,000 annual compensation and a decision to pay him $567,000 for unused vacation time.
Archibald, who stepped down last year after 24 years, has been credited with improving the Missouri History Museum's profile among U.S. museums and greatly increasing attendances and private contributions. He could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
The museum was founded in 1866 and playing a major role in securing the 1904 World's Fair for St. Louis. Its collection of Lindbergh documents and memorabilia is said to be the most extensive in the United States.
About $10 million of the museum's $14 million annual budget is provided by tax revenue.
Two members of the eight-member board that oversees the museum and other cultural institutions said on Tuesday they had been kept in the dark about the museum's operations.
Gloria Wessels, a board member, said she had tried for years without success to determine Archibald's salary.
Museum trustees have agreed to share control with officials appointed by the St. Louis mayor and the St. Louis County executive. The trustees have also hired a lawyer to investigate the allegations of document shredding.
John Roberts, chairman of the Missouri Historical Society, which runs the museum, said his agency had no knowledge of any illegal activity at the museum and welcomed an investigation.
Roberts said the allegations were "debilitating to the museum and threaten both its reputation and its pocketbook.
"Raising funds is understandably increasingly difficult under such a cloud," he said. "None of this is in the public interest."
(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Lisa Shumaker)