News-Sentinel: Details about Tennessee State Museum donors should be public

The Knoxville News-Sentinel makes the case that a foundation that was set up entirely for one purpose – to raise money for the state-owned Tennessee State Museum – should disclose details about donations that will help fund a new building.

The foundation has a big job: It’s supposed to raise $160 million to add to the $120 million committed by the Legislature for a new place. Gov. Bill Haslam is leading the fundraising effort. And it’s an admirable cause.

We don’t have to go into too much detail here about the need for transparency in foundations with ties to government or government officials.

In this case, there’s an easy answer that would seem innocuous except that it’s become, well, an issue: Make the donor names and their amounts public. Why such need for secrecy?

Here’s the Knoxville News Sentinel editorial:

The people of Tennessee should know the donors — and the amount of their donations — to the $40 million fundraising campaign for the Tennessee State Museum.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who is leading the fundraising effort, has said through a spokeswoman that the names of donors, but not the amount they are giving, will be made public.

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, who serves on the museum’s oversight board, was correct — if a tad caustic — in characterizing the governor’s position as “a half-baked disclosure” likened to “being a little bit pregnant.”

Ashe also serves on the board of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a group that advocates for government transparency that counts the News Sentinel among its members.

The Tennessee State Museum Foundation is conducting the fundraising campaign for the construction of a 137,000-square-foot museum on the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville. The foundation is a nonprofit established to support the museum’s programs. The Legislature authorized $120 million of the project’s funding, with the foundation providing the balance of the$160 million needed.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III has issued an opinion that the foundation’s records do not fall under the state’s Public Records Act. The courts have ruled that for-profit and nonprofit organizations that operate as a functional equivalent of a government agency must open their records for public inspection. Slatery determined the foundation does not meet that requirement, even though its only purpose is to provide funding for the activities of the state’s history museum — a role otherwise played by the General Assembly.

An attorney general’s opinion is not legally binding, but serves as a guide for lawmakers and bureaucrats in carrying out their duties. Despite Slatery’s position, the foundation should offer full disclosure of the funding as a matter of policy.

Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said Friday that the governor anticipates disclosing “later this fall” a preliminary report on the amount raised, coupled with disclosure of names of donors at that point.

“He also expects when the campaign is over that the names will be released along with an amount range,” Donnals said. In disclosing “an amount range,” donors would be categorized in groups according to the size of their contributions.

The attorney general’s opinion was requested by state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, who is also a member of the commission board. The veteran legislator said that, in his own opinion, disclosure of donor information should be at the option of the donor.

That would be fine if the museum in question was not a public facility established by the General Assembly. The museum is owned by the people of Tennessee, and the people of Tennessee have a right to know the particulars of its operations — including fundraising. Haslam and the foundation have an obligation to the public for full disclosure of the funds dedicated to the museum.

What do you think?