Longform

Framing Marilyn Zeitlin

Stephane Janssen almost died last year, so Marilyn Zeitlin sent him some flowers.

Zeitlin, director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, figured it was the least the museum could do. Janssen, a Belgium-born, world-class art aficionado--his personal art collection could literally fill a museum--was one of the museum's most generous supporters.

So generous that when he recovered, he donated about $500,000 worth of art to the ASU Art Museum, including a video piece by celebrated New York artist Nam June Paik.

Not bad for an $86.50 investment.

Marilyn Zeitlin practically lost her job over such profligacy.
Stephane Janssen was shocked in March when--driving home to Carefree after a blood test--he heard on the radio that Zeitlin was being investigated. The state auditor general had concluded that the museum had misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was even more surprised to learn that expenditures such as the floral arrangement Zeitlin had sent to Janssen's sickbed had gotten her into trouble.

Like her close friends and many arts patrons, Stephane Janssen stuck by Marilyn Zeitlin.

No one else did. Why should they? Just look at the auditor general's main findings, as dutifully repeated on the local news and in the Arizona Republic, Tribune and State Press:

* More than $275,000 in museum funds misused during fiscal 1996 and 1997, including purchases such as flowers and champagne and payments for parking tickets and lost library books.

* Zeitlin's son hired as a translator on a trip to Europe.
* At least three other instances of nepotism involving other museum employees.

* Misuse of frequent-flier miles earned on university time.
* More than $25,000 in purchases that were not put out to bid.
The audit implies that Marilyn Zeitlin and her staff went on a protracted, wanton shopping spree.

But a close examination of the record suggests that this audit is much ado about very little.

Dozens of interviews--including the first in-depth, on-the-record explanation from Zeitlin herself--and a review of reams of public records lead to the conclusion that the auditor general's report, while technically accurate, is so void of details as to beget unfair conclusions.

Ultimately, the audit's findings point to nothing more than some sloppy paperwork on the part of Zeitlin and museum staff. The auditor general found nary a dime that wasn't spent on university business.

Marilyn Zeitlin is an accomplished curator and fund-raiser who has put the ASU Art Musuem on the global map.

So why the hubbub?
Along the way, she offended a subordinate--and he set out for vengeance.
"All I did was my job," says Zeitlin's nemesis, Tim Feavel, the museum security chief who reported her to the state bean-counters. "My job is to protect from theft--inside and out."

Within days of the release of the audit, ASU--which is in the midst of a $300 million national fund-raising campaign--went into crisis mode. Zeitlin was put on paid administrative leave, pending the results of an internal probe of ASU's own. The state attorney general announced a preliminary criminal investigation. A legislative subcommittee voted to slash ASU's budget for next year by $250,000.

Specifics behind the allegations in the audit are elusive. The report doesn't include any details--such as, for example, how much money was misspent on parking tickets. The auditor general has refused to provide such documentation, saying it is included in confidential "working papers." Unlike most state agency heads who are audited, university officials were not allowed to preview the report and write their response to it.

In fact, Zeitlin, ASU College of Fine Arts Dean Robert Wills and other university officials learned of the audit report's existence when a reporter called for comment.

The facts, according to public records obtained from ASU:
* Misuse of $275,000: That money--virtually all private donations--was all accounted for, and all spent on museum business. There is question as to whether it was deposited into the correct university account, and whether the checks were made out correctly.

From January 1, 1996, through March 1998, the sum spent on flowers and alcohol--all for legitimate, museum-related purposes--totaled less than $2,000. For example, the museum spent $72 on alcohol for the "Art on the Edge of Fashion" opening, which drew 1,800 people. Flowers were sent to Bonita Nelson, a volunteer in the museum store and wife of former ASU president Russell Nelson, for whom the Nelson Fine Arts Center--where the museum is housed--is named, when she had major surgery. Cost: $51.89.

As for the parking fines, there was just one fine accrued during the period audited, for $10. Ironically, that $10 museum check--written to a tearful docent who had parked errantly before spending a day volunteering in the museum shop--was never cashed.

The lost library books in question had been borrowed by an employee who quit. Despite multiple calls, the two books weren't returned. Instead of letting the library foot the bill, Zeitlin decided to pay the $160 out of museum funds.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.