History foundation reaches agreement with state over $270,000 in misdirected COVID-19 funds

Criminal charge still pending against former History Nebraska director over fund shift

By: - September 30, 2023 5:00 am
History Nebraska

The headquarters of History Nebraska (formerly called the Nebraska State Historical Society) is just north of downtown Lincoln. The agency changed its name to History Nebraska in 2018. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: story has been corrected to reflect that the payments will go to History Nebraska.

LINCOLN — The History Nebraska Foundation has reached a financial settlement with the state over $270,000 in COVID-19 relief that was re-directed away from that purpose.

The re-direction of the money led to the filing of a felony theft by deception charge against the now former director of History Nebraska, Trevor Jones.

The episode has left the future of the History Nebraska Foundation — whose creation in 2020 was led by Jones — in doubt.

Its director/development officer recently resigned, and there are concerns about whether the foundation can repay the $270,000 after a report in March that it would be operating in the red within a couple of months.

Former State Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, a member of the History Nebraska Foundation Board of Directors, said Friday that he worries about the future of the organization, which was founded as a rival to a larger, and more established state history foundation, the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation.

“It’s sad,” Hadley said, that there is turmoil between History Nebraska and the Historical Society Foundation.

Trevor Jones
Trevor Jones served as director and CEO of History Nebraska from 2016 to 2022.
(Courtesy of History Nebraska)

This saga began in 2020, as COVID-19 shutdowns closed state historical sites across the state.

It prompted Jones, then the director of History Nebraska, to seek financial help from the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation, in anticipation of decreased revenue for the state agency.

The foundation agreed to transfer $269,926 from its discretionary account to History Nebraska to cover the anticipated financial impact from COVID-19.

But instead of depositing the money into the state treasury, as is required, and using it for COVID-19 needs, Jones signed over the funds to a new, History Nebraska Foundation he had created.

The tale of two foundations

The Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation was founded in 1942 to benefit the state’s top history agency, which was then called the Nebraska State Historical Society.

But in 2018, the historical society’s name was changed to History Nebraska under Jones leadership in a stated effort to “reach new audiences.”

That led, later, to the creation of a rival, new foundation, the History Nebraska Foundation, amid a dispute between Jones and the old foundation over use of some donated funds.

Each foundation has its own board of directors, but the older foundation continues to be a much larger entity.

In March, History Nebraska reported to the State Legislature that the History Nebraska Foundation had $101,722 in assets. An accountants report also submitted by the agency, however, included a graph indicating the foundation would be operating in the red by April.

In its latest federal tax return for nonprofits, the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation reported $17.6 million in assets.

In an Aug. 18 settlement agreement with the State Attorney General’s Office, the History Nebraska Foundation agreed to repay History Nebraska, the state agency, a total of $270,251, plus interest of $12,836, in monthly installments over five years. 

Payments exceed recent assets

The total payments — $283,088 — were more than double the assets reported for the History Nebraska Foundation in March, a report that projected that the foundation would soon run out of money (see infobox). The organization’s executive director and chief development officer, Tyler Vacha, left the post recently.

Under the agreement with the Attorney General, if the payments aren’t made, the History Nebraska Foundation agreed to dissolve and turn over any of its remaining funds to the older foundation.

As first reported by the Examiner, this saga began when the Nebraska State Auditor’s Office, after fielding complaints, raised questions in August of 2022 about the use of the funds by Jones and History Nebraska.

Jones resigned as History Nebraska’s director just before that,  in May 2022, saying he was moving to France and taking a break after six years in the job, which paid $170,825 a year.

A preliminary hearing in his criminal case is scheduled Oct. 12 in Lancaster County Court.

The interim director of History Nebraska, Jill Dolberg, said that since the developments impact the foundation, she was not able to comment. The head of the History Nebraska Foundation Board, Ann Bruntz of Friend, could not be reached for comment.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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