Whistleblower complaint surrounding potential conflict of interest over DIA art loan expands


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A law firm whose lawyers represented the Ukraine scandal whistleblower who led to President Donald Trump’s impeachment and who assisted journalist Ronan Farrow in exposés on Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein has filed an expanded complaint on behalf of employees at the Detroit Institute of Arts, alleging an ethics violation at the top levels of the museum.

Nonprofit Whistleblower Aid filed the expanded complaint against the museum on Thursday. The new complaint alleges that board chair Eugene Gargaro “appears to have colluded in this scheme” involving the loaning of two paintings to the museum from collector Alan May, who is DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons’s father in law. Last year, the museum borrowed May’s El Greco painting, “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata,” and in 2010, when Salort-Pons was working as a curator, the museum also borrowed May’s “An Allegory of Autumn,” a painting attributed to the circle of Nicolas Poussin.

When museums exhibit works of art, it can increase their value, and while museums are allowed to loan art from people connected to the museum, the conflict of interest must be disclosed. Whistleblower Aid says it could find no evidence that Salort-Pons and Gargaro did so.
The paintings are owned by the May Family Trust, which could include May and his daughter as beneficiaries. At the time of the loans, “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata” was valued at $5 million, while “An Allegory of Autumn” was valued at $500,000.

The complaint was also sent to the Association of Art Museum Directors. A representative from AAMD confirmed to Metro Times that it has received and is reviewing the materials, but said it has no further comment at this time.

“It is unprofessional for a museum director to use his or her influence or position for personal gain,” the AAMD Code of Conduct states, in part. “A director shall not deal in works of art ... in which the director has any undisclosed financial interest.”

“We don’t think there’s anything criminal going on here,” Whistleblower Aid founder John Tye tells Metro Times. “But we do think there are serious ethics problems in violation of the DIA’s own policies, the Association of Art Museum Directors’ policies, and also the IRS, which has rules about what tax-exempt charities can do and the kind of benefits that they can provide to, for instance, the family of the director.”

The museum maintains that both loans were above-the-board, and says it will hire an independent law firm to investigate whether its policies and procedures were properly followed.

“The DIA has hired a nationally-respected law firm, with no prior relationship to the museum, to conduct an independent review of our policies that govern our art loans processes and related conservation services,” the museum said in a statement to Metro Times. “This will ensure all best governance practices will continue to be followed.”

Whistleblower Aid filed its first complaint with the IRS and the Michigan Attorney General on June 28.

“The first disclosure basically laid out the facts as we had them and said ‘here are some possible things that might be going on,’ but it also said we don’t have a lot of the information and left the door open to clarification,” Tye says. “It was more asking questions.”

The most recent filing implicates Gargaro. In an interview with The New York Times, Gargaro said that both May and Salort-Pons informed him about the plan to lend the El Greco to the DIA. “If it’s disclosed to me, then it’s disclosed to the whole board,” Gargaro told the paper.

But Whistleblower Aid alleges that another potential conflict of interest exists because Gargaro and May have had a personal relationship for many years, according to its anonymous sources. Whistleblower Aid alleges that Gargaro did not disclose this personal relationship with May to the board.

Whistleblower Aid also alleges Salort-Pons took “other particular steps to hide the true ownership of ‘Stigmata,’ and those steps suggest he was aware of possible wrongdoing.” The firm declined to disclose details of what those “particular steps” were in order to protect its whistleblowers.

Additionally, Whistleblower Aid is also calling for the DIA’s independent law firm to protect the identities of any whistleblowers who give them information, who fear retaliation. In Michigan, it is unlawful to retaliate against employees who file whistleblower disclosures.

Under the DIA’s policies, any potential conflict of interest in the loan of a work of art must be disclosed to the museum’s committee on professional practices. The committee is supposed to then figure out who is conflicted, and then recuse them from the loan process. Then, the committee weighs the pros and cons of going forward with the exhibition.

“As far as we know, they did not do that,” Tye says, referring to the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. “And that means they violated the policy.”

On Monday, a group of employees calling themselves “DIA Staff Action” demanded the ouster of Salort-Pons by the end of August, citing the controversy surrounding the El Greco loan, as well as alleged instances of racial insensitivity at the museum. Three high-ranking employees of color have resigned from the museum in recent years.

A similar coup is happening at MOCAD, where current and former employees have demanded the ouster of executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, alleging a toxic workplace.

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