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Turmoil at the Museum: Inside the Affair, Suicide and Abrupt Resignation That Rocked the Cleveland Museum of Art 

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A source close to the board says the investigation included searches of internal email and phone records.

But that investigation should have happened months earlier.

An anonymous letter was sent to all museum board members in December 2012/January 2013. That letter included allegations of the affair with mention of Christina and her position at the museum by name. Instead of any semblance of a real investigation, David Franklin was questioned twice about the rumors – once by Kestner himself. His steadfast denial was enough for the chairman, who then brushed off the rumors to fellow board members as flat-out false.

One source close to the museum speculated that the board didn't pursue because they didn't want to find out the truth, that "they are conditioned, absolutely programmed, not to make waves."

Sources familiar with the museum's operations have said it would be "unthinkable" and "preposterous" that the museum wouldn't have a policy in place regarding romance in the workplace. (The museum's media relations director, Caroline Guscott, has not responded to multiple requests for comment about museum policies regarding office relationships or sexual harassment.)

A former board member did confirm that there's an employee manual and code of ethics, including a whistleblower policy and policies regarding sexual harassment, but could not say whether a codified policy on office romance existed. They suggested, if nothing else, that such relationships are bad for employee morale.

That's likely one reason why David Franklin and August Napoli, the museum's development director, helped orchestrate Christina Gaston's move to ChamberFest (an annual concert series) in November 2012.

Christina's departure from the museum was already suspicious. Friends of hers had told Scene that the job stressed her out. She was a perfectionist, and ChamberFest was a small, unorganized operation. Whether or not she felt a vocation to fundraising, she was considered a woman with a bright future in the museum's development office, described by one senior curator as a "rising star." The ChamberFest job represented, among other things, a pay cut and a loss of medical benefits. Christina had undergone arthroscopic shoulder repair one month prior (Oct. 19, 2012) and required extensive physical therapy.

But in a recorded phone call with Cassandra Gaston after Christina's death, David Franklin talked about Christina's employment in weirdly paternalistic terms: He thought it would be "good for her" to try out a management position. He didn't view it as a demotion. Music was her passion, after all. And even when the job proved to be an emotional burden:  

"We all realized it wasn't working out terribly well...We even had -- when I say 'we' I mean me and her former boss, Augie, who's very, very friendly with Christina and offered to help her too. He and I basically had other...were looking at other positions that she could apply for, or even go back to the museum."

Franklin and Napoli were pulling strings. That much was clear. But the only ones who could truly corroborate the strategies at play were Franklin and Napoli themselves. Franklin hinted that easing whatever on-the-job tension existed was a factor in getting Christina the job, but only a minor factor. Though Franklin alluded to getting Christina the job, little can be found to corroborate that fact.

When reached by Scene, August Napoli communicated that he had nothing to say and has not responded to follow-up emails.

Diana Cohen, the executive director of ChamberFest, lauded Christina Gaston as a person and employee but did not answer questions about her employment placement. "I do not have any comment at this time," she wrote in an email.

All other CMA board members declined to comment or could not be reached.

HOW THE SCANDAL WAS COVERED

Among the board members of the Cleveland Museum of Art is Terry Egger, publisher of the Plain Dealer. Egger would have received the anonymous letter detailing the allegations of the affair, among other misgivings and professional transgressions of Franklin. But, Egger told Plain Dealer reader representative Ted Diadiun, he claimed he did not know anything until the Monday when Franklin's resignation was announced. (Egger sits on marketing sub-committee, not the executive committee.)

Egger's role was troublesome at first glance – should the publisher of the city's daily newspaper even be sitting on the boards of institutions that the paper is trusted to cover objectively? – as Litt's initial reporting did not delve into the "personal reasons" for Franklin's departure. Comments on the story that insinuated or bluntly made mention of the affair were quickly deleted. And many wondered whether the paper would pursue the story at all until other outlets pushed them. One reputable source contended that Egger would push his reporters to follow any story, even if it affected a board he sat on, as far as it would go, but the optics didn't look great.

"I was unaware of the resignation and the issues involved until it was announced on Monday," said Egger in Diadiun's column. "As to whether I in any way had any influence on the timing or content of Steve's stories, the answer is an emphatic no. The journalism always takes precedence in any board I serve on. I think Steve is very good at what he does, and I encouraged him only to pursue the story and do his very best work."

Litt himself was ill equipped for the story, whether or not Egger should have or did provide tips like the anonymous letter. It's unclear whether Litt was privy to the scuttlebutt around the museum and heard the rumors, or whether Egger knew about Christina's death in April (one source said it's preposterous to think he didn't know the very next day). And there's no way of knowing whether the museum was ever questioned about the affair or whether a judgment call on what is and isn't news was made.

"Rumors aren't stories," Plain Dealer managing editor Thom Fladung told Diadiun, exhibiting a luxury granted by the paper to the museum that isn't shown toward, say, sports teams or politicians. "We were not going to be compelled to publish by what anyone else did. We decided not to file a story just on the police report, we wanted to push the board to tell us what prompted the resignation. By waiting a day, we were able to lay out for the readers clearly what the board knew, when they knew it, and to report that in the context of the fact that (Franklin) continues to have a relationship with the museum." Except that all the information in what Litt described as a "deliberative piece of journalism," was, again, lies and half-truths from Kestner.

Litt's a capable, veteran reporter, but also a cheerleader and PR mouthpiece, more investigative stenographer than investigative reporter. But he's also a reporter with a vested interest in covering the museum favorably. His former colleague at the PD, Donald Rosenberg, who was laid off in August, was reassigned from the orchestra beat in 2008 after he wrote a series of critical articles about conductor Franz Welser-Most. In Cleveland, the boards rule.

Litt and Egger did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

THE GOVERNANCE CONUNDRUM

R. Steven Kestner is suspended between a rock and a hard place. If he admits that he saw the Christina Gaston police report or knew of its contents much earlier than he says he did, which is likely, it means he actively covered up his director's involvement in a death, an affair, and the deceit attendant to both; and nonetheless let him continue to direct the Cleveland Museum of Art for five months. If, on the other hand, Kestner didn't see the report or know of its contents until he says he did -- willfully or otherwise -- the chairman of the CMA board is guilty of profound negligence in pursuing critical information about the most important figure at the institution he governs.

By Kestner's own admission, the board knew of Franklin/Gaston rumors in January, 2013, four months before Gaston's death. Yet no one thought it was serious enough to pursue beyond their "internal investigation."  

And why is that?

Because in Cleveland, the tradition of board membership has been built around the board members themselves, not around the institutions they govern. Being on a board, for the many of these people, is a chance to write checks and "give back." It's a chance, moreover, to perpetuate the image of themselves as people of power and prestige in the community. There's long been a tradition of gratitude for trustees' financial contributions, and that's much deserved. But that gratitude has instilled in them an almost deific sense of entitlement, the certainty that they are beyond reproach. There's zero transparency, zero accountability and, consequently, zero criticism.

But here's one:

The board members have become so enamored of their membership that they've forsaken, to some degree, their trusteeship. It is their fiduciary responsibility to govern the institution, in this instance the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the public trust, to protect and advance its ideals. But they haven't. They hired a director ill equipped for the task to run their museum. They opted to be cheerleaders rather than governors and overlook, at best, or cover up, at worst, his unprofessionalism, even when it was clear that they'd made a mistake.

Know more? Contact us at sallard@clevescene.com / dbrown@clevescene.com. Contact the Gaston family with additional information and personal messages at christinagastonfamily@gmail.com

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