Questions Hang Over Administration Getty Trust

The Getty Trust, one of the largest foundations in the United States, has been under investigation for how it spends money as a non-profit organization. In the midst of the investigation, President and CEO Barry Munitz resigned. But some say that doesn't settle the matter.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Well, the J. Paul Getty Trust has been suffering unwanted publicity in recent months. The Getty's former antiquities curator Marion True is on trial in Rome accused of conspiring to receive stolen goods.

In February Barry Munitz, the head of the Getty, resigned amid questions about his misuse of trust funds. We have a two-part series beginning this morning. NPR's Lynn Neary reports on the issues surrounding Munitz's tenure.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

The Getty Center, all gleaming white and beautiful, sits atop a hill overlooking Los Angeles. To get there, visitors take a short tram ride.

(Soundbite of tram)

Unidentified Speaker: Morning, hi, welcome to the Getty. To your left at the top of the stairs is where the main entrance to the museum will be. To your left at the top of the stairs. Welcome...

NEARY: Leaving the tram, people are easily distracted, says visitors' guide Bob Easterbrook(ph). Surrounded by stunning views and the striking architecture of Richard Meier, they're not sure where to look first.

Mr. BOB EASTERBROOK (Visitor's Guide, The Getty Center): You sort of disembark and it's like, wow, times three. Well, where do you go?

NEARY: Most of the people who come to the Getty Center don't realize that it houses the Getty's research, conservation and philanthropic programs. They mostly think of the Getty as a museum and they know the Getty is rich. The center itself is a testament to that wealth. With assets of more than nine billion dollars, the J. Paul Getty Trust is the fourth largest foundation in the country.

Until very recently the Getty Trust was led by Barry Munitz, a man who apparently relished the trappings of wealth. With a compensation package of more than a million dollars, Munitz liked to travel first class and stayed in the best hotels. He resigned after questions about his salary, expenses, and possible misuse of Getty assets prompted both an internal inquiry as well as an investigation by the California attorney general.

Deborah Marrow was appointed to serve as the interim head of the Getty Trust. Self-effacing and down-to-earth, Marrow prefers not to dwell on the not-too-distant past.

Ms. DEBORAH MARROW (Interim President and CEO, J. Paul Getty Trust): We have to figure out what went wrong so that we can fix it going forward, but other than that, I'd really rather look forward.

NEARY: Marrow won't talk about Barry Munitz and says she can't talk about the details of pending investigations into Getty finances. But she bristles a bit at the suggestion that financial management has been lax.

Ms. MARROW: I wouldn't use the term financial laxity. I mean, I think that's not accurate. There have been issues. Those issues will be corrected. And again, as I say, whatever issues there've been, we're working really, really, really hard right now to correct them and make sure we're better, improved, going forward.

NEARY: The prevailing feeling at the Getty now seems to be that with the resignation of Barry Munitz, the spotlight should be off so the staff can concentrate on their work. But Kevin McCarthy who does research on the arts for the Rand Corporation, says it's doubtful that all the Getty's problems can be blamed on one man.

Mr. KEVIN MCCARTHY (Senior Social Scientist, Rand Corporation): Any director-president of an organization like that is responsible to his board.

NEARY: Members of the Getty board come largely from the corporate world and that, says McCarthy, may be why they didn't have a problem with the way Munitz was spending money.

Mr. MCCARTHY: You're used to traveling in a certain style and getting paid a certain amount of money, etc. and they're not thinking of themselves the way a typical non-profit would be. I mean if you're running a small performing arts organization, the idea of traveling first class--traveling, much less traveling first class--is difficult to conceive of. But, you know, I think the bottom line is look to who the directors are, what they're familiar with and where they come from and that gives you some sense of what they value and how sensitive they are to the non-profit code of ethics.

NEARY: John Biggs, chairman of the Getty Board of Directors disputes such criticism.

Mr. JOHN BIGGS (Chairman, Board of Trustees, J. Paul Getty Trust): I'd say it's a very unfair criticism. I think the board has followed all the best practices in the non-profit world. I think the basic compensation of Dr. Munitz was done on almost an ideal corporate governance model.

NEARY: Biggs says the board initiated its own investigation into allegations against Munitz but he will not elaborate on what, if anything Munitz may have done wrong.

Mr. BIGGS: All I can say is when we were in the midst of that investigation, Dr. Munitz decided to resign and...

NEARY: Are you saying, so you were not concerned that he had, in any way, misspent or mishandled, or not well-managed the assets of the trust?

Mr. BIGGS: Well, he walked away from enormous value in his contract and he also agreed to pay $250,000. He wrote a check for that amount to the trust to resolve any remaining gray issues about any other expense items. So we found that to be an acceptable, from our point of view as a board--and we are submitting that to the Attorney General, but the Attorney General has not yet ruled on whether he's satisfied with that.

NEARY: A spokesperson at the Attorney General's office says the investigation is continuing and is likely to end in a settlement that focuses on oversight by the board. The Council on Foundations, which placed the Getty on probation, is also continuing to investigate.

Steve Gunderson, president of the council, says in an era of closer scrutiny of the tax-exempt status of non-profits, foundations must begin to police themselves. That's why the council initiated its action against the Getty and that's why the Getty is cooperating. Gunderson says the council has told the Getty that the resignation of Barry Munitz does not solve all its problems.

Mr. STEVE GUNDERSON (President and CEO, The Council on Foundations): We believe that some of the violations of standards of appropriate conduct were the result of the lack of governance and oversight by the board and we've made that very clear to them--that they need to change their process to have decision making or oversight by the board that would prevent this kind of abuse from occurring in the future.

NEARY: Both the Attorney General's office and the Council on Foundations say the Getty is now cooperating fully with their investigations and that, says the Rand's Kevin McCarthy, could bode well for the Getty in the future.

Mr. MCCARTHY: There's no deus ex machina that's gonna make this situation--I mean they're gonna have to live with what happened for a long time but if they take the right kind of steps, and they show that they're going about this in a serious way, not just trying to bury the memory of Barry Munitz, then they have a real chance of, you know, of doing something that really opens things up.

NEARY: As the Getty awaits the results of the attorney general's investigation, the board is turning its attention to an important new task. It is just beginning the process of looking for candidates to fill the job that Barry Munitz left behind. Lynn Neary, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This series continues this afternoon on most NPR member stations. Lynn Neary takes a look at the antiquities of the reopened Getty Villa tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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