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Park Service Official and Boosters Helped Artist Avoid Taxes

Interior watchdog confirms agency mishandled purchase of $39,000 painting. 

A National Park Service official at a Revolutionary War battlefield in South Carolina conspired with an artist and a park friends group to help the artist avoid a tax garnishment for income from a sale of a painting to the park, a watchdog found.

After investigating a tip concerning the 2015 purchase of the painting, the Interior Department inspector general concluded that the timing of the art purchase seemed to coincide with a funding increase in the cooperative agreement between the friends group and Kings Mountain National Military Park, a federally protected site within NPS’s Southern Campaign Parks Group.

The IG found that the parks official “directed the NPS’ acquisition of a $39,000 painting by the artist in 2015 and structured the purchase using the friends group as a broker for the sale even though the friends group did not own the painting. This structure allowed the artist, the painting’s true owner, to avoid a federal tax garnishment that would have been imposed on him had he sold the painting directly to the NPS,” the report said.

The conspiracy angle came in, as the official later admitted, when he coordinated the transaction with both the artist and the friends group, “which included dictating that the friends group receive a $4,000 fee for its role in the transaction.”

The artist did not wish to be paid directly, investigators found, because of the tax liability, so the official (unnamed) arranged to deposit the payment directly in the friends group’s account, and the friends group paid the artist’s proceeds directly. The friends group executive told investigators that the parks official said $30,000 would be payable to the artist, $5,000 to another friends group executive for a prior debt the artist owed him and $4,000 to the friends group to fund its interpretive program.

NPS and local battlefield contracting staff “did not follow federal regulations” or Interior’s procurement policies in acquiring the painting through a sole-source arrangement, which normally would been done through competitive bidding, the IG added.

“We also found that [Kings Mountain staff] increased the annual funding to the friends group’s cooperative agreement by $25,000 around the same time the [park] official began coordinating the purchase of the painting, but we found no direct connection between the friends group’s role in acquiring the painting and the increase in funding.”

 The local staff did, however, “improperly” extend the period of performance of the cooperative agreement without authorization from contracting officials.

A parks administrative employee told investigators she had recommended a competitive bid and understood that her decision not to tell superiors about an email “she received from the artist was wrong, but she felt the artist had tricked her and she believed the purchase request could not be canceled.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina declined prosecution. The IG relayed the report to the Park Service’s acting deputy director for possible discipline.