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Wednesday, June 27, 2018 01:02 pm

State's top Lincoln expert on shelf

Cornelius on paid leave

Astute observers may have wondered why Samuel Wheeler, Illinois state historian, was the one who showed off Lincoln relics to a reporter in a recent CBS News spot that ran coast-to-coast, putting the fundraising travails of the presidential museum’s private foundation in the national spotlight.

Isn’t that a job reserved for James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Museum? In fact, yes – Cornelius typically has been the one who trots out The Hat and other artifacts to reporters, prospective donors and others who have sufficient juice to get exclusive look-sees at the institution’s most prized possessions.

As much as anyone, Cornelius has been the public face of the institution, giving presentations to school children, appearing in interviews with television reporters and otherwise explaining history to the masses, all with a professorial panache that makes you think, “Gee, this guy really knows his stuff.” But Cornelius wasn’t available for the CBS segment, having been placed on administrative leave in March.

It’s not clear why Cornelius remains at home while collecting paychecks from taxpayers – the state doesn’t think that’s the public’s business. And this isn’t Cornelius’ first time in the penalty box.

A records request to the ALPLM for recent disciplinary records yielded nary a blacked-out document about the current paid leave, but it did result in disclosure of blacked-out documents confirming that Cornelius last year was suspended for 15 days for insubordination. No details were provided.

Back in 2014, before Gov. Bruce Rauner took office on a platform that included a promise that his would be the most transparent administration in the nation, the institution released records showing that Cornelius was suspended in 2012 after a series of incidents that included “unprofessional behavior” toward relatives of an ALPLM “client,” then “numerous disrespectful, sarcastic and unprofessional comments” directed at then-ALPM director Eileen Mackevich (who resigned under pressure in 2015) during a meeting, according to disciplinary records. The last straw, according to disciplinary records, came when Cornelius became “hostile” and “verbally abusive” toward the museum’s staff while an exhibit was being installed.

“He cursed, condemned ALPLM management and called the workplace a ‘circus,’” then-director Amy Martin of the now-defunct Illinois Historic Preservation wrote in a 2012 letter notifying Cornelius that he was being suspended for two weeks. “This behavior was also exhibited in the presence of a member of the press.”

Rauner fired Martin shortly after Mackevich resigned. Cornelius, on the other hand, got a 32-percent raise the year after he was suspended. Museum maintenance workers, it turned out, were earning more than Illinois’ premier expert on Abraham Lincoln, who has a doctorate and was getting paid just $47,000 a year.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com


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