A Woman Scorned

Former Laumeier Director Beej Nierengarten-Smith points fingers and names names in her parting shot from THE Sculpture Park. She lets it fly, and some of it sticks.

Knicely's personal-injury suit also includes allegations that Nierengarten-Smith directed him to falsify time sheets, instructed him to report a fundraising loss as a profit and, most critically, keep quiet about the appraisal and shipping of her personal Brazilian art collection to Santa Fe on Laumeier's dime.

Although the suit is near settlement, neither party will discuss a case still in litigation. However, two file folders of court documents sit in the civil-courts building as public record, shedding more light on the face beneath the artful Laumeier mask.

Knicely's attorneys, Martin and Maria Perron, had a tough time accumulating the information. Over two years of pretrial discovery, the defense team, led by R. Lance Witcher and Robert Tomaso, attempted to restrict access to Laumeier records on grounds of confidentiality, harassment or whatever else was legally applicable. Some records never appeared, including the personnel files of Nierengarten-Smith for the years 1994, 1995 and 1997. Those files have been "purged," in the choice phrasing used during the deposition of Nierengarten-Smith by Maria Perron in February.

Harold Goodman, chairman of Laumeier: "Whatever problems we've had ... there's no point in discussing them."
Jennifer Silverberg
Harold Goodman, chairman of Laumeier: "Whatever problems we've had ... there's no point in discussing them."

The Perrons managed to uncover other documents that supported Knicely's account of life at Laumeier, however. Records revealed that Knicely had tried to keep Nierengarten-Smith in check by developing a formal review-and-development policy for her expenses (per Ernst & Young's recommendation), but she ignored the procedures.

Knicely received a positive performance review from Nierengarten-Smith after his first six months of employment, in May 1998. However, a few months later, the board complained that he was not supplying them with adequate accounting figures. Somehow, somewhere, somebody approved his firing in December 1998. But the Perrons never found those records, whether in minutes to full-board or executive-committee meetings -- if those records exist.

Because Knicely was employed by the board and not the county -- as he had been promised -- he was susceptible to the Laumeier steamroller.

But Knicely is one terminated Laumeier employee who would not go away. Despite the obstacles set up by the defense, the Perrons managed to uncover enough evidence for Judge Margaret Neill to set a trial date. In so doing, Neill refused the defense team's motion for summary judgment, its last attempt to stop Knicely's suit from ever going to trial. In Neill's decision, her most emphatic language concerns Knicely's allegations involving the Brazilian collection. "In his petition," Neill writes, "plaintiff alleges that Ms. Smith used funds belonging to Laumeier Sculpture Park to pay for the appraisal of her personal collection. This allegation, if true, amounts to stealing from the Park, which is against the law" [our italics].

With language such as that, the defense was eager to settle, and the court date was set aside.

A messy public trial has been averted, but the court records remain, revealing more about Laumeier, old and new. In sworn affidavits for the court, former chairs Joann Harmon and Don Wolff and former vice president and current chair Goodman took Nierengarten-Smith's side against Knicely. Knicely was the problem, Nierengarten-Smith the "professional." Yet, when Goodman is asked by the RFT to answer to some of Knicely's specific allegations, his memory lapses.

For example, Knicely alleges that a fundraiser lost money but Nierengarten-Smith told him to report a profit to the board. The event coincided with an exhibition by artist Hiro Yamagata, who paints designs on custom Mercedes-Benz automobiles. The minutes to the Laumeier board meeting (Nov. 10, 1998) show Wolff praising -- with Harmon and Goodman present -- the report of a $1,500 profit made by the Yamagata event.

In their sworn affidavits in the court records, the three share a different story. They say they knew the event lost money, so it appears that Harmon, Wolff and Goodman approved a report they should have known was false.

Laumeier board meetings consisted of nodding heads and sly winks. One such performance occurred in April 1996, after the dissolution of the previous board, chaired by banker Richard Jensen.

Jensen's board had attempted to fire Nierengarten-Smith but failed when they could not gain the support of the county, her actual employer. With pressure exerted by Aronson and his friend Bob Orchard -- who had no official association with Laumeier -- Nierengarten-Smith remained in place, and a new board was formed with Wolff as chairman.

The minutes to the Wolff board's first meeting, found in the discovery phase of the Knicely lawsuit, reveal the surreal nature of life at Laumeier. The Post-Dispatch's Robert Duffy attended as an invited guest and, for his vigilance was treated to a fully staged, standing-room-only Laumeier performance. Twenty-eight members of the Laumeier board and staff were present, an attendance record. The next meeting, held without a media figure watching, managed to attract eight board members.

Brazil was the major topic of discussion at the April meeting. As recorded in the minutes, Nierengarten-Smith claimed she had purchased the artwork in Brazil with her own money, even though the Jensen board had canceled the exhibition. Wolff showed support for the besieged director and said it would be proper for a second exhibition of Nierengarten-Smith's private collection to be held at Laumeier. There was no conflict of interest, he reasoned, because the director had agreed not to sell the work.

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