SF Arts Commission director used cultural grant to fund Hawaii vacation

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(BCN) — A former director of the San Francisco Arts Commission has been fined $20,000 after she admitted diverting grant money to finance a personal vacation in Hawaii.

The grant had been intended for a local Native and Indigenous artist, and was awarded to fund a short documentary exploring pre-colonial connections across the Pacific. Instead, the money was used by former arts director Barbara Mumby-Huerta to pay travel expenses to Hawaii for herself, her daughter and a friend, a trip in which no work was ever produced.

The fine, levied by the San Francisco Ethics Commission, brings an end to a years-long drama surrounding the misappropriation. A stipulation agreement, titled In the Matter of Barbara Mumby, details four ethics violations that each carried a $5,000 penalty.

Mumby-Huerta admitted to giving assistance to someone seeking business with the city, accepting a gift from that person, failing to file financial disclosure forms, and lying to investigators multiple times.

She resigned from her position as director of community investments with the arts commission in early 2020, subsequently worked as an affiliated scholar at University of California Hastings College of the Law and is currently a vice president at the Portland-based Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

The misappropriated grant money was never recovered. April McGill, executive director of the American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco, said Mumby-Huerta’s use of funds for her own purposes had left a void where a Native American artist’s work could have been created.

“It takes funds away for true San Francisco artists,” McGill said. “There’s not a lot of funding for Native and Indigenous artists that live in San Francisco.”

Mumby-Huerta ushered the $15,000 grant through the approval process despite her friend’s ineligibility — she lived out of state.

The ethics commission found her actions to be “the worst violations of law and of the public trust.” The $20,000 fine is the fifth-largest levied by the ethics commission since 2004, when it began publishing the data, according to DataSF.

Mumby-Huerta did not respond to multiple email and voicemail messages seeking comment.

Strained relations

Mumby-Huerta’s malfeasance caused further strain between some Bay Area Native and Indigenous organizations and the San Francisco Arts Commission, as well as divisions in the Native community, according to three people whose organizations have sought grants from and been involved with events planned by the arts commission.

The American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco was one of the organizations that flagged Mumby-Huerta’s behavior in a letter to the commission in 2019 but the authors felt their letter was ignored.

“This is the thing with the arts commission: you can make all the complaints you want, they don’t listen,” said McGill.

The arts commission said it did not ignore the complaints, but a review of a draft letter in response to the organizations revealed that Mumby-Huerta was invited to write the response, which offered a full-throated endorsement of her work.

“The San Francisco Arts Commission takes allegations of fiscal impropriety very seriously,” an arts commission spokesperson said in an email. “The SFAC takes all concerns and complaints received by members of the public seriously and will work to diligently gather all relevant facts and information to address and respond to concerns received in a timely manner.”

“This caused a lot of harm in the community,” said Morning Star Gali, project director of Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples, one of the organizations that signed onto the letter complaining about Mumby-Huerta to the arts commission.

Gali was also part of a panel that advanced the grant application, and she later attended the Hawaii trip with some of the grant money. She said she had been unaware that Mumby-Huerta had written the proposal when the panel reviewed it and was invited on the trip by Mumby-Huerta to help conduct interviews for the video project.

But when Gali arrived in Hawaii to join the group, she said no production ever took place.

“I was, like, this is not what I signed up for,” Gali said in a phone interview.

The art of grant writing

Mumby-Huerta joined the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2014, according to the arts commission. In her role as senior program officer, she was credited with developing a grantmaking strategy, streamlining the arts commission’s grants program, implementing an online grants management system, and creating an Artistic Legacy grants program. She also led a team awarding 200 grants every year.

After a nationwide search, she was promoted to the role of director of community investments in January 2018, just months before the Hawaii trip began to take shape.

“We have no doubt that she will be impactful in improving the health of San Francisco’s arts sector and advancing racial equity in the arts and in our community,” said then-director of cultural affairs Tom DeCaigny.

But later that year, Mumby-Huerta authored the majority of a grant proposal for a friend, Kimberly “Avanna” Lawson, then manipulated multiple aspects of the application process, according to the ethics commission stipulation agreement, which Mumby-Huerta affirmed, as well as emails released by the arts commission as part of a public records request.

The grant in question, the Individual Artist Commission, or IAC grant, is funded through the arts commission’s Cultural Equity Endowment Fund and is earmarked for underrepresented artists who are residents of San Francisco. Applicants who claim Native or Indigenous heritage are reviewed by a panel described by the arts commission as “Bay Area Native American community members.”

The application

The ethics commission lays out a timeline that begins with Mumby-Huerta authoring an IAC grant proposal for Lawson. The form was submitted with Lawson’s name on Nov. 8, 2018.

The pitch for the grant was to fund the creation of a short video trailer for a documentary about pre-colonial connections across the Pacific.

Lawson indicated in a short phone interview that neither the idea for the project nor the idea to apply for the grant were hers and that she no longer considered Mumby-Huerta a friend. She then abruptly ended the interview and said, “no comment. I’m just glad this whole thing is over.”

According to the ethics commission, “the grant included the applicant’s preference to be reviewed by a panel of San Francisco Bay Area Native American community members.”

Mumby-Huerta used her friend’s Native American identity to skirt the residency requirement, according to emails released by the arts commission. The ethics investigation concluded that Lawson had rented a commercial studio in the city several years earlier but was a resident of Nevada at the time of the grant application.

When a subordinate employee told Mumby-Huerta about the need for proof of residency, Mumby-Huerta replied in an email, “for the Native applicants I had agreed to accept lease agreements as an accepted form of residency,” maintaining that the years-old studio lease had gone month-to-month and was in fact Lawson’s residence.

She went on to write, “I have also been to her studio in the past three months and can confirm this is her SF home address.” The ethics commission found that to be untrue.

Mumby-Huerta alerted her staff that this grant was to be considered “super high priority,” and also negotiated an unusual, increased upfront payment.

IAC grants are paid out in two installments, with 80 percent of the funds disbursed upfront, and 20 percent paid at the end of the project. For this grant, Mumby-Huerta had the arts commission release 90 percent of the funds upfront. The project was never completed, and the final installment was never released to Lawson. This meant that the entire upfront payment, extra funds included, was wasted.

Mumby-Huerta offered to deliver the money directly to her friend. The ethics commission concluded that the $14,000 was just enough to cover the budget Mumby-Huerta had worked out for the Hawaii trip.

According to the ethics commission, “documentation obtained during the investigation showed that prior to negotiating the initial grant disbursement of 90 percent, Mumby had drafted a budget for the trip to Hawaii that identified the cost of the trip as $13,500.”

She incurred one count of an ethics violation for illegally authoring the majority of the grant proposal, giving selective assistance to someone competing for a city contract. Another came after she was determined to have directly accepted $3,500 from Lawson for the Hawaii trip, which included Mumby-Huerta’s daughter.

The rest of the grant money, according to the ethics commission, was arranged to reimburse Mumby-Huerta and the others for the cost of the trip.

“Mumby and others who participated in the trip absorbed initial costs and subsequently obtained reimbursement from the grantee. Specifically, all participants covered their own airfare, and Mumby in addition paid the costs associated with the vacation home, knowing that she would be reimbursed for her expenses through the grant monies she negotiated to be received by her friend,” the stipulation agreement explains.

The conclusions drawn by the ethics commission were made public after Mumby-Huerta signed a legal agreement stipulating that the fine was a reasonable penalty.

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The grant

The 2019 IAC grant was awarded in May of that year. The project’s goal was to “invest in a vibrant arts community,” and it set a timetable for deliverables that would complete the project by June 2020.

According to a summary of the grant proposal, which was released by the arts commission as part of a public records request, “SFAC funds will be used to support the creation of a five-minute documentary trailer to tell the story of migration and connections between Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California and Native Hawaiians.

The proposal named an award-winning, Florida-based videographer, Anesti Vega, to participate in the project. The grant proposal identifies a location shoot in Hawaii that would include interviews with community elders.

“The shoot schedule will be timed around special community gatherings in order to obtain footage and imagery of appropriate traditional songs and dances to further draw connections,” the proposal reads. The pitch praises Vega’s experience and attention to the Native community, saying “he focuses on authentic, genuine and contemporary representation of Indigenous people.”

In a phone interview, Vega said he regretted becoming involved in the project and that he felt his name was attached to increase its chances of being approved. He said Mumby-Huerta had been his point of contact for the Hawaii trip and for all details of the project.

“It was clear Avanna didn’t know anything about what was going on,” he said.

What happened in Hawaii

What happened in Hawaii in August 2019 is informed by interviews with two participants on the trip, Vega and Gali; a description of the events from Kimberly “Avanna” Lawson to the arts commission, and the ethics commission’s own investigation. By all accounts, the experience was a disaster. Morning Star Gali, called it “Real World Hawaii: Native version.”

No shooting schedule for the team was ever produced, no locations were identified, and no interviews were arranged or conducted, Vega said. He said the only production that was done was on his own accord and that nobody ever asked him for copies of the footage that he shot.

“This was a glorified vacation,” he said.

Vega said that when he brought up his frustration with the lack of production, Mumby-Huerta told him not to worry. Vega said that at the time he made it clear to Mumby-Huerta that he did not want a grant with his name on it to go unfulfilled. But he said Mumby-Huerta assured him that there was no problem because she would be the one reviewing the project.

He questioned at the time how the grant for a local artist had been given to someone that lived in Nevada. He said he spent much of the time in his room with his wife, who had come along as his assistant.

Staying in a house the ethics commission determined was rented with the grant money, Vega and Gali described scenes of booze-soaked lei-making sessions, partying with old friends unrelated to the project, and conflict at several turns.

Vega said there was a helicopter tour taken by Mumby-Huerta and her daughter, and the ethics commission said grant money was used for a dinner to celebrate the pair’s shared birthdays.

Lawson’s letter to the arts commission and Vega’s interview described a trip full of infighting, disagreements among the group, and a total abandonment of any production of the film.

A downfall, compounded

Upon their return from Hawaii two key things happened: a public letter was sent to the arts commission by three San Francisco Native and Indigenous organizations raising a series of concerns about Mumby-Huerta and planning and funding decisions at the arts commission.

The letter raised concerns about the trip being used to fund a vacation rather than an art project for a San Francisco-based Native or Indigenous artist. The city controller’s office was also contacted through its anonymous whistleblower hotline.

The letter was mostly authored by American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco board president Andrew Jolivette, according to Jolivette. He said the group had increasingly felt there was not enough collaboration in planning decisions and that the commission had become overly reliant on one person to make decisions about planning and funding for Native and Indigenous events.

The letter urged the arts commission to investigate the allegations of misusing the grant.

“I don’t feel like they ever adequately addressed what we brought up and if they had maybe they could’ve avoided some of this coming out,” Jolivette said. He said the groups thought the letter would lead to a reprimand or a warning and would hopefully influence the arts commission to implement better checks and balances.

But the arts commission invited Mumby-Huerta to write and edit multiple drafts of a letter to directly respond to the organizations.

Jolivette said he was surprised to hear that Mumby-Huerta was given the letter by superiors to directly respond to. McGill, the cultural center’s executive director, said she was not surprised, given the ties between Mumby-Huerta and other arts commission leaders.

“They had a very close relationship,” McGill said.

McGill and Jolivette, speaking on behalf of the AICC, called for the San Francisco Arts Commission to prioritize hiring staff and leadership who are Native and Indigenous and to collaborate more with representative community groups.

McGill said she had been accused of being the whistleblower, which she denied, and said the entire episode had caused divisions in the Bay Area Native and Indigenous community.

Both McGill and Jolivette said they were contacted by Mumby-Huerta’s husband, which left them feeling uncomfortable. Jolivette said he saved the voicemail that was left for him, while McGill said she shared the experience contemporaneously with a friend who was present when she received the call.

More ethics charges

Mumby-Huerta resigned in January 2020, five months after the Hawaii trip. She was required to file two financial disclosure forms, which the ethics commission said she failed to do, and that drew the third ethics charge.

The fourth, and final charge, came during the ethics commission’s investigation, which determined that Mumby-Huerta altered documents that she attempted to produce to investigators on two separate occasions.

Despite this, in 2021, UC Hastings hired Mumby-Huerta as an affiliated scholar with the university’s Indigenous Law Center.

A spokesperson for UC Hastings, Elizabeth Moore, said the role was a non-teaching position that lasted until June 30 of this year. She declined to say whether the school’s leadership was aware of the pending ethics violation or whether a background check was conducted. Moore said Mumby-Huerta is no longer affiliated with the university, and by July 13 the webpage announcing her role had been removed.

Portland-based Native Arts & Cultures Foundation hired her in July 2021 as the vice president of programs and partnerships, where she helps evaluate and distribute grants to Native and Indigenous artists.

The foundation said it only recently became aware of the violations in San Francisco and issued the following statement in response to questions: “The foundation was unaware of these allegations and ongoing investigation during the recruitment and hiring process of the employee, and only recently learned of the matter. Upon receiving this information, the foundation took the violations seriously and began an internal review, which is ongoing, and is currently deliberating to determine the best path forward. It is NACF policy to not directly comment regarding an ongoing internal review.”

Drop the mic

Jolivette said Mumby-Huerta’s actions had consequences beyond the ethics fine.

“To have caused factionalism in the Native community,” Jolivette said, “this is damaging to the community.” Lawson never completed the Rainbow Bridge trailer, according to the arts commission. None of the scheduled deliverables were submitted. She told the arts commission in an email that she was unable to repay the grant money and offered to complete the project in March 2021, nearly a year after it was due.

The arts commission said that the commission demanded the return of the money in June 2020, but none was repaid. The matter was forwarded to the city attorney’s office and to date no money has been recovered from the IAC grant.

In January 2020, the arts commission announced to its staff that Mumby-Huerta had resigned, six days after the ethics commission said she presented altered emails to investigators. Mumby-Huerta’s own message to former colleagues later came from a private email address.

In her resignation letter, Mumby-Huerta wrote that she is leaving to “find new pots to stir,” and concludes with an offer to her former colleagues at the arts commission: “Drop me a line if you want to conspire together!”

In another message, Mumby-Huerta tells a former colleague, “I’m glad you appreciate my punk rock, dropping the mic and walking away move.”

Whether the mic was dropped or knocked from her hands, Mumby-Huerta’s voice is no longer amplified — at least not on behalf of San Franciscans.

Copyright © 2022 Bay City News, Inc.

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