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The investigation of Connecticut Landmarks will continue through the summer

It was a neighbor of Forge Farm in Stonington who first alerted me to what she called the mistreatment of that historic property by Connecticut Landmarks, a prominent historic preservation society run by a board of influential and politically connected people.

It didn't take long to document the sad deterioration of Forge Farm, which was so badly neglected that the last tenant had to move out after years of complaining about a malfunctioning furnace, doors that couldn't be locked, broken windows and a roof that leaked so badly, buckets were needed inside.

This neglect by Landmarks, despite a significant endowment left along with the house for its care, was shocking to many in the rural neighborhood along Al Harvey Road in Stonington, where Forge Farm had been left abandoned, blight on one of the town's most scenic roads.

It wasn't hard to find other problems with Landmarks properties. In East Haddam, local preservationists, horrified by the condition of two historic houses there — no longer open regularly to the public, also supported with endowments — that they started a Facebook page to cry foul.

The office of Attorney General George Jepsen responded, first with an investigation into the houses in Stonington and East Haddam, and then, according to statements, all of the Connecticut Landmarks properties.

When I checked last week on the progress of that investigation, a spokesman for the attorney general's office said the "investigatory stage" of the review of the nonprofit is expected to be done in or about September "depending on events and findings" between now and then.

"We have reviewed extensive documentation and conducted a number of interviews concerning the activities of Connecticut Landmarks," a spokesperson for the attorney general said in the statement.

Indeed, I learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the office made a substantial request from Landmarks in March for documentation pertaining to all of its assets with charitable use restrictions imposed by donors.

The nonprofit was asked to provide spreadsheets documenting the assets, present value, principal and interest, as well as documentation of the original gifts.

It's the attorney general's responsibility to make sure charitable gifts are spent as intended, and there are clear indications that money left to Landmarks for specific properties was spent elsewhere.

Howard Metzger, for instance, in his will leaving the handsome 1738 Palmer-Warner House in East Haddam, specified that the money in a separate fund was to be used only on his house. But Landmarks credited Metzger's estate with having donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a restoration of the organization's headquarters in Hartford, work done even while the barn on Metzger's property was collapsing.

His house and some of the collection also was damaged when the furnace ran out of oil and there was a flood from burst pipes.

In fact, Metzger had misgivings about his gift to Landmarks, which he expressed one month before dying in a car crash.

"My concerns now ... is that the society (is) more interested in finances, money and expenses than possession and acceptance and ownership of this property and future opening as a museum," Metzger wrote in 2005.

"This is a haunting dread," Metzger wrote. Indeed, the house, restored by Metzger's partner, an acclaimed restoration architect, has never been open to the public despite an endowment that one former Landmarks trustee estimated at more than $2 million.

Lee Kuckro, a trustee who was forced off the board after complaining about the care of Forge Farm and the Palmer-Warner House, wrote to fellow trustees in 2009 about the "steady deterioration" of the East Haddam house. He also referred to inappropriate renovations at Forge Farm, the replacement of the wooden roof and windows with vinyl and asphalt, as "self vandalism" by the organization.

Attorney General Jepsen has recused himself from the Landmarks investigation because he and his wife once hosted a Landmarks fundraiser at his Hartford home.

His deputy is overseeing the review.

It will be interesting to see what might be proposed to correct any wrongs uncovered in the way these charitable gifts were handled.

Possibilities range from the unlikely finding that it was fine to let these properties deteriorate while money left for their care was spent elsewhere, to some kind of intervention in court.

Will there be a demand that any money spent inappropriately be clawed back and used for the properties it was intended for? Can the same people who "self vandalized" historic properties be given a second chance to do the right thing by the donors who trusted the organization?

"As is typical, our timing in concluding our review and determining appropriate next steps, if any, will depend on events and findings in the investigation," the spokesperson for the attorney general said in the statement.

Stay tuned.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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