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Thursday, May 4, 2006 04:46 pm

This search party is a private affair

A private entity, not the state, seeks a new presidential museum director

Julie Cellini, who chairs the board of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, says the firm searching for a successor to Richard Norton Smith has contacted at least 40 candidates.
At the Vatican, a puff of white smoke signals the selection of a new pontiff, with no one but the coziest of insiders ever being privy to the winnowing process. What, exactly, is going on at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is at least as difficult to figure out, one month after Richard Norton Smith left his post as the institution’s director. The building is owned by the state and operated with taxpayer money. It was built with public funds, which also provide salaries and other operating costs. However, the state isn’t in charge of the search for a new director to replace Smith, who left after less than three years in Springfield. Rather, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, the private fundraising arm of the institution, is contracting with a high-powered executive-search firm to find a replacement for Smith. Gov. Rod Blagojevich will make the final call from a list of candidates that will be vetted by a committee chosen by the foundation. How much is the search costing? That’s none of the public’s business (at least until next year, when the foundation must make public its tax returns and reveal how much it has paid contractors for professional services). Can we get a copy of the contract with Heidrick & Struggles, the search firm? Nope. Who, exactly, in the foundation is in charge of the search? Jill Burwitz, museum spokeswoman, promised to provide a list of the seven search-committee members, but she never followed up. Susan Mogerman, chief operating officer for the foundation, did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for an interview. She also did not respond to e-mailed questions, among them a query asking whether she is a candidate for the post. Blagojevich’s office referred questions on the selection process to Burwitz. According to Burwitz, the foundation isn’t certain just what job is being offered. “The foundation is in charge,” Burwitz says. “They’re looking for an executive director for the foundation. It’s their responsibility to hire someone. Whether that will be one person who will oversee the foundation and the museum or two people, that is yet to be determined.” Smith served dual roles as head of the public institution and the private foundation. He was paid $150,000 by the state and an equal amount by the foundation, according to public records. The foundation will present a list of names to the governor, who will make the final decision, Burwitz says. She says she’s not certain who, if anyone, has been declared a finalist. She also says there isn’t any rush. “This is going to be a long, lengthy process,” Burwitz says. “This isn’t going to happen overnight. I don’t believe there’s a rush to find someone.” At least one person is officially in the running. Interim director Thomas Schwartz says Heidrick & Struggles has asked him for a curriculum vitae and is setting up an interview in Chicago. “I don’t know if this is like Miss America and I’m down to the final 10,” Schwartz says. He says he’s willing to work for less than the $300,000 Smith earned. “Don’t tell my wife,” he quipped. Julie Cellini, who chairs the board of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which oversees the museum, and is also a founding member of the foundation board, says by e-mail that the search firm has contacted at least 40 candidates. “Heidrick & Struggles says the only drawback they hear from candidates is that Springfield is a town of 111,000 people and many candidates have two-career households that need a bigger city where the spouse has career opportunities, or they simply want to live in a large metropolitan area,” Cellini says. “If a person wants New York or Chicago or LA, well, we just can’t compete on that level.”  William Cellini, Julie’s husband, is a longtime Republican powerbroker. However, in recent years, he’s raised eyebrows in gubernatorial races, particularly through the Illinois Paving Association, a contractors’ group of which he is executive director. Since June of last year, the Good Government Council, the association’s political-action arm, has given at least $25,000 to Blagojevich, whom the council also backed in 2002. The 2002 race was easy to figure: Jim Ryan, Blagojevich’s opponent, torpedoed a plan to erase William Cellini’s debt on a loan that he used to build the hotel now known as the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel. The deal Ryan killed would have gotten Cellini out of debt for 25 cents on the dollar. The paving association has continued giving to Blagojevich, most recently in December, even though his opponent Judy Baar Topinka was the one who agreed to forgive millions of dollars in hotel debt. Julie Cellini’s star has risen ever higher with Blagojevich in office. The governor nominated her for a prestigious national commission that is putting together the celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009. The president made it official by naming her to the panel in February. Smith came to Springfield after receiving assurances that the museum and library wouldn’t be a patronage dump. What assurances can Cellini or Mogerman provide that politics won’t be the deciding factor in choosing Smith’s successor? Neither woman responded to an e-mail posing that question.
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