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"State auditors probe account of planned museum"

I posted a similar article yesterday, but it hasn't shown up yet.

"State auditors probe account of planned museum"

Times Staff Writers

This story ran on nwitimes.com on Tuesday, May 17, 2005 12:52 AM CDT

Indiana auditors are probing the account of a foundation aimed at building a region children's museum amid accusations that the group's volunteer board inappropriately spent state grant money for the project.

Meanwhile, the man hired to administer the facility -- which has not yet been built nor even obtained a site to build on -- said he has gone without pay for about eight months with scant explanation about why the checks have stopped coming.

And Times research shows the would-be museum director, Don Wolberg, of New Mexico, has a history of involvement in waffling or failed business ventures.

The recent controversy centers on payments the board of the planned Discovery Center of Northwest Indiana made to Wolberg after hiring him in March 2004 to run the museum. Wolberg is best known for the traveling dinosaur exhibit, Dinofest, which last was displayed at Chicago's Navy Pier in 2001.

Board Chairman Thomas Cera, a senior division manager for Mittal Steel USA in East Chicago, confirmed Monday that Wolberg received some payments from a $500,000 pool of money dedicated to the museum from the Build Indiana Fund, a state economic development account.

At the time, Cera said board members were unaware the fund money -- kept in accounts belonging to the East Chicago Department of Redevelopment -- was to be used only for capital projects, not administrative costs such as Wolberg's salary, according to state regulations.

The board had hoped Wolberg could help get the dream of an interactive museum celebrating the region's history and culture off the ground. He said the facility, which the board still plans to build, was meant as part of an overall redevelopment of the lakefront and a boost to the local economy.

Sometime in mid- to late 2004, Cera said officials who maintain the East Chicago account told the board that using the Build Indiana money to pay Wolberg was inappropriate and that the board then stopped making payments to Wolberg.

Cera also promised that no one affiliated with the museum project committed any wrongdoing or criminal acts and said the board would comply with any recommendations that arise from an ongoing audit by the State Board of Accounts.

"This could be a great facility for Northwest Indiana and a great contributor to economic development here," Cera said. "We'll look at everything found in the audit and see what we can do better."

Speaking from his New Mexico home Monday, Wolberg confirmed he received only about six months worth of a $78,000 yearly salary from the board and that payments stopped coming in fall 2004.

"I was hired under contract as an employee but then was paid sporadically or not at all and didn't really get an explanation as to why the payments stopped," Wolberg said.

"I was offered things like full benefits, health insurance, a small staff and travel expenses, none of which were met."

Wolberg said just before the payments stopped arriving in September, he was making plans to buy a home in Northwest Indiana.

"The only good thing to come out of this so far is that I don't have a mortgage in Indiana, given the uncertainty of this project," Wolberg said.

Wolberg said he still believes the region could use a facility like the Discovery museum and would be happy to work for the board if it gets the project organized.

Times research shows this is not the first time Wolberg has been involved in rocky business ventures.

In 1993, Wolberg launched his unique traveling dinosaur exhibit. But a year later, he was the center of a dispute with the founders of the Jurupa Mountains Cultural Center in Riverside, Calif.

Wolberg left a position at the California center after serving three days of a two-year contract, claiming he found record-keeping deficiencies. He filed a breach of contract suit in that case.

A cofounder and executive director of the center claimed Wolberg just walked away from the job. The board tried to hire Wolberg back, but the center's founders ended up suing the board.

In 1999, the St. Louis Science Center sued Wolberg trying to recover $115,000 in advances for a Dinofest exhibit that never went on display there. Wolberg claimed the center didn't keep its end of the bargain in fronting money for what would have been a $3 million event.

The St. Louis suit was settled in 2000, at about the same time Wolberg was pitching a $75 million dinosaur museum to be called Planet Park to Tampa, Fla., officials.

Tampa officials were reported to have been startled by Wolberg's predictions that the project could attract 1.4 million visitors per year, which was more than double the number visiting the Florida Aquarium.

While the St. Louis and Tampa ventures failed, Wolberg was successful in bringing Dinofest to Navy Pier later that year.

By June 26, 2002, however, Wolberg filed for bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New Mexico, federal court documents show.