Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser has been using a Lower Pontalba Building apartment and space in other state museum buildings in the French Quarter for his personal benefit and has engaged in a pattern of political interference with the agency's operations, the Louisiana State Museum's interim director said Monday while resigning in protest.
Nungesser’s interference includes attempting to override museum officials and board members who objected to plans to loan U.S. Sen. John Kennedy artworks for his office in Washington, D.C., and threatening to sell museum works of art on eBay to raise funds, said Tim Chester, a museum consultant who took the interim position in October.
“I have never encountered anything like this in the 40 years I’ve worked in the field, ever,” Chester said. “I’ve seen some pretty strange crap come down in museums, but this one takes the cake.”
Nungesser denied the allegations and blasted Chester, who he said had not been moving quickly enough to find a permanent director or make other changes to the museum.
“Some of the things in there are bald-faced lies,” Nungesser said, referring to Chester's resignation letter as “cowardly.”
"I think he’s an agitated old man who was not moving quickly enough in anything I wanted done at the museum," Nungesser said. "I wanted accountability. I wanted to know where people were, what they were doing."
“These incidents represent a growing threat to the health and prosperity of the Louisiana State Museum,” Chester said as he stepped down at a meeting of the museum's board at the Old U.S. Mint.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser has been using a Lower Pontalba Building apartment and space in oth…
Chester was hired last fall as an interim replacement for Mark Tullos, who headed the museum from 2013 until Nungesser dismissed him in May 2016. At the time he was hired, Tullos was the fourth person to hold the job in five years.
When he was lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu pushed through legislation giving him, rather than the board, the power to hire and fire the museum director. Not long afterward, he forced out David Kahn, who had been hired two years earlier.
The State Museum is a part of the state's Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which is overseen by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. But the museum — which includes the historic Cabildo, Presbytere, Old Mint and Lower Pontalba Building in the French Quarter, plus other buildings in Baton Rouge and elsewhere — also has a semi-independent board.
In announcing his resignation, Chester laid out a laundry list of issues with Nungesser’s oversight of the museum, including interference in staffing and management decisions.
Nungesser also has used the museum’s property for his own personal use, Chester said. That includes a vacant apartment in the Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square, which had previously been used for housing guest speakers.
“Keys to the museum apartment were taken away from our staff, and staff was told scheduling and use of that apartment would happen out of Baton Rouge,” Chester told the board.
Nungesser said the request to turn over the keys stemmed from a tour he took soon after his term began in January 2016, when he was told that nobody was staying in the apartment. But when he went inside with a maintenance person, they found someone in the apartment, he said.
“I don’t think I ever found out who that someone was staying there,” he said.
Nungesser said he had personally used the apartment two or three times and noted that Chester had stayed there for several weeks when he was first hired. It also has hosted legislators, tourism officials, musicians and the grandson of the person who donated the building to the state, he said.
The museum has never been denied use of the apartment when it has asked for it, he said.
In addition, Chester said, Nungesser has been seeking to convert another, more desirable apartment in the mid-19th century building into a personal pad, which would involve construction that would alter the unit’s historic character.
Nungesser said his office had considered swapping the apartment for a more desirable, two-bedroom unit in the Pontalba that had become vacant. But he said it was Chester that began renovations on the unit against his wishes.
“I’m trying to redirect our efforts to do the critical repairs and maintenance,” Nungesser said, adding that there isn’t a need to do renovations on apartments that have a long list of people interested in renting them.
Chester also accused the lieutenant governor of “attempting to intimidate” museum staff to avoid paying the normal rental fees for hosting private, after-hours events at museum facilities.
When asked to pay the fees, an official in Nungesser’s office replied, “Tim Chester doesn’t own that museum. The lieutenant governor does,” according to Chester’s resignation letter.
Nungesser said he has not held an event at any museum facilities and never received an invoice from the museum. He said the allegation may refer to a time when his staff requested to host a seafood event at the museum — something the office routinely does at other museums around the state — and was told they would have to pay.
"It was probably good that he resigned because if I had known that, he wouldn’t have had to resign," he said.
Chester also alleged Nungesser has been interfering with the lengthy waiting list used to select new tenants for the much sought-after Pontalba apartments.
Chester said his resignation was driven by those issues as well as others, including demands from Nungesser’s staff for keys to the museum buildings so they could use them at their discretion, something that Chester said violated the museum’s security policies.
Another major issue was a request by Kennedy to take 14 pieces of art to Washington, D.C., that had been in his office in Baton Rouge while he was state treasurer, Chester said. Nungesser requested the loan of that artwork be approved, though Kennedy withdrew the request last week, Chester said.
Nungesser said the loan would have been a way to show off artwork that would otherwise be in warehouses. He said Chester’s reluctance to send the artwork to Washington stemmed from Kennedy’s senatorial campaign last year, which included attacks on the state’s public arts program.
“I didn’t agree with him in the campaign when he attacked the art program," Nungesser said, "but I didn’t think it was proper to punish him because of his stance on one issue. He’s our senator, and I really believe that we should embrace what’s best for the museum, the collection and the whole state of Louisiana.”
Chester's comment about selling off state artwork was a reference to Nungesser's proposal to sell some pieces that are in storage, an idea that was floated before Chester was appointed. Nungesser said he still supports that plan.
Board members on Monday reacted with sadness to Chester’s resignation, with Chairman Lawrence Powell saying he wished he could refuse it.
Others said the resignation was needed to bring attention to the issues between Nungesser and the board.
“These problems have been going on for months and months. ... It’s will and power on one side and, except in some areas, our lack of power,” board member Harry Hardin said. “This (resignation) exposes them to public scrutiny, which is what politicians sometimes pay attention to.”
But, Chester said, he couldn’t continue, given all the issues that had built up.
“I don’t have any skin in this game. My long-term future is not tied to kowtowing or saying politically correct things,” Chester said. “It gives me an odd sort of authority that allows me to call things as I see them.”