Mall memorial plan ends with missing money

Ground never broken for the Black Patriots

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When the National Park Service established a “reserve” around the Mall, closing the area to new monuments, two final memorials had secured space and were waiting to be built: a monument honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and a memorial to black soldiers and sailors who fought in the Revolutionary War.

The King memorial is just months from completion, scheduled for an August unveiling eight years after the reserve was created in 2003.

But despite several assists from Congress, which 14 years ago authorized the U.S. Mint to issue a commemorative coin to jump-start fundraising for the nonprofit Black Patriots Foundation, ground never broke on the Revolutionary War memorial.

And when congressional authorization to build the memorial between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument expired in 2005, the foundation - and nearly $1 million generated by the coin sales - had vanished.

A little-noticed 2009 report by the Treasury Department’s office of inspector general obtained by The Washington Times through an open-records request revealed a lack of oversight on the part of the U.S. Mint and widespread abuses by the foundation. Yet no administrative sanctions were issued, no one faced charges and the money was deemed irretrievable.

A Mint spokesman said it had no statutory authority to try to recover the funds.

The foundation vigorously promoted the memorial, saying it would “remind us that blacks and whites shed blood together for our nations independence and our collective freedom.” More than 5,000 blacks fought in the Revolutionary War.

The commemorative $1 coin featured an image of Crispus Attucks, a black man killed in the Boston Massacre and widely referred to as the first patriot to die in the American Revolution. It also depicted a black Colonial family that would have been featured on the 90-foot-long bronze sculpture on the Mall.

The coin, sold in collector sets ranging from $30 to $84, was made available in February 1998. Under the 1996 law enabling its creation, a $10 surcharge for each coin was dedicated to funding the memorial. The coins were sold through December 1998, raising $902,000, which was delivered to the foundation in 2003.

The law specified that coin proceeds were to be used exclusively for the memorial’s construction, yet foundation officers told the inspector general’s office that they were unaware of this provision and admitted to commingling coin proceeds with funds from other sources. They also acknowledged using the money to pay operational costs, including a salary of more than $80,000 for the foundation’s president, Rhonda Roberson.

H.B. Lazar Business Services Inc. in Silver Spring, the foundation’s bookkeeper, told investigators in 2007 that the group’s finances were “in shambles” when it took over the account in 2002. The firm said “large sums of money” had been spent on consultants, airline tickets and “shopping-type items.” H.B. Lazar said the group stopped paying for its services in 2005 and could not be located to come pick up its records. The firm eventually shredded the records because it lacked the space to store them.

In a written statement to investigators, Ms. Roberson - now head of a small real estate investment firm in South Carolina - said a foundation representative called the Mint’s general counsel’s office and was told there were no restrictions on the use of the funds.

Mint denies call

Mint officials deny that any such call took place, and the IG’s report said Ms. Roberson could provide neither a time or date of the call or name of the person with whom she spoke.

In her statement, Ms. Roberson, a lawyer, also said the money received from the coin surcharges “were used for fundraising to build the memorial and to run the foundation office.” She told investigators that a sculptor was paid $125,000 for a model of the monument and that additional funds went to pay her salary and other expenses, such as travel.

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