Attorney general, state auditor investigating if donation to History Nebraska handled appropriately

Trevor Jones, who is leaving as director, is focus of probe

By: - June 20, 2022 5:00 am
History Nebraska

History Nebraska, formerly known as the Nebraska State Historical Society, is located just off the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus at 1500 R St. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office is looking into whether some funds donated to History Nebraska were mishandled by its outgoing director and CEO, Trevor Jones, the Nebraska Examiner has learned.

The alleged irregularities involve more than $260,000 in funds provided to the state history agency by the Nebraska State Historical Foundation.

Jones, who recently announced that he was resigning his $164,800-a-year job effective July 1, said he had not been contacted about such an investigation, so he could not comment.

He is not suspected of using the funds for his personal use, according to sources familiar with the probe. But questions have been raised about whether Jones followed proper protocol in accepting the money and whether it was used for purposes other than what was intended, which was to cover agency losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

‘Aware of concerns’

A spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said last week that the office is “aware of concerns and [we] are taking appropriate steps to respond.” The issues are also on “the radar” of Nebraska State Auditor Charlie Janssen, a spokesman said. 

Trevor Jones
Trevor Jones has served as director and CEO of History Nebraska since 2016. He will leave the job on July 1. (Courtesy of History Nebraska) 

David Levy, an Omaha attorney who serves as president of the History Nebraska Board of Trustees, said he was unaware of the investigation.

Jones’ sudden departure from the post, announced on May 18, caught many staffers and board members affiliated with History Nebraska by surprise.

On Friday, he said his decision to resign wasn’t impacted by any investigation but about a conversation he had with his wife after she had donated a liver to save a family member.

“That started a conversation about what we wanted to do on Earth,” Jones said.

Moving to France

They decided they wanted to travel, he said. Jones recently told History Nebraska officials that he and his wife will be moving next month to live in Nimes, France.

During six years as director of History Nebraska, Jones won both praise and criticism for his leadership.

Board members interviewed by the Examiner said they were impressed by his vision, particularly in pushing to digitize records and artifacts held by the agency to accommodate the shift to online history research.

“He accomplished a lot. He modernized the organization,” Levy said, adding that improvements at the Chimney Rock visitors center were amazing.

‘Brought energy’

“He brought energy and vision to the organization,” said Marilyn Moore, a past president of the board and a former Lincoln school administrator. “We have taken steps to becoming the most engaging state historical society in the country, and that’s the goal.”

But many employees despised Jones, saying that he could be demeaning and dismissive. Some complained about his use of a management system called Entrepreneurial Operating System, which is designed for entrepreneurs, and required frequent employee reviews and burdensome charting of tasks completed. Staffers complained that EOS was better suited for private companies and for “filing widgets” than for an agency whose mission was preserving history.

Justin Hubly, head of the state employees union, the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said History Nebraska workers complained about the constant demand to chart their goals and accomplishments, leaving them little time to “do their actual job.”

Eager for ‘new leadership’

“He didn’t know how to get the best out of people,” Hubly said. “Our folks are looking forward to new leadership.”

More than one History Nebraska employee interviewed by the Examiner said that parties are being planned after Jones departs.

More recently, some agency workers complained that a recent Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion effort went too far, going beyond adopting better hiring practices and including more outreach and history of minority and LGBTQ groups, to asking employees to march in pride parades in Lincoln and Hastings.

Jones, on Friday, said that the Examiner was talking with “too many disgruntled employees,” when there were plenty of workers who supported what he’s done.

He said he was proud of the agency’s focus on diversity and inclusion and sees nothing different in employees marching in the “Wilber Czech Days” parade and a parade celebrating people who identify as LGBTQ.

Donation in 2020

Levy, when asked about criticism from employees, said that “change is hard and some people don’t like change.” He added that it was Jones’ job, not the board’s, to manage the agency’s employees.

The donation being investigated came in 2020, at a time when Jones was telling the History Nebraska board that the agency’s earnings were “dismal,” because of closures of historical sites due to COVID-19.

Losses in the final quarter of the 2020 fiscal year — April, May and June — could hit $500,000, Jones told the board at its April 2020 board meeting.

That prompted a donation from the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation of more than $260,000 to help address the funding shortage. But the money, it is alleged, wasn’t used for that purpose, but to help a new foundation launched under Jones’ watch.

Competing foundationy

There’s some history between Jones and the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation.

In 2020, Jones led the creation of a new, competing foundation to solicit funds for History Nebraska called the History Nebraska Foundation. (Under Jones’ leadership, the name of the agency was changed from the Nebraska State Historical Society to History Nebraska in 2018.)

The creation of a second foundation was the culmination of a long-running spat between Jones and the original fundraising arm of the history agency, the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation, about how donated funds should and shouldn’t be used.

The Historical Society Foundation holds about $18 million in donations, according to state records. That compares to about $247,000 in assets accumulated so far by the new History Nebraska Foundation, according to GuideStar, which tracks nonprofits. 

Lawsuit threatened

One key spat between Jones and the old foundation is how to use a $1 million-plus donation from a Nebraska family to produce an exhibit on farming. The Historical Society Foundation has declined to turn over funds from the “Weese Farm Fund,” maintaining that Jones’ planned exhibit doesn’t comply with the terms of the donation.

In recent months, the History Nebraska board has sent “demand letters” to the Historical Society Foundation, stating that if the dispute is not resolved, it has authorized a lawsuit to be filed.

Levy said Friday that the History Nebraska board and representatives of the Historical Society Foundation continue to discuss the proper use of the farm exhibit funds.

“That should be something we ought to be able to resolve,” he said.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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