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AG looks into Citi Center's spending

Scrutiny grows over operations

The attorney general's office is looking into practices at the Citi Performing Arts Center in light of recent Globe reports on the nonprofit organization's spending.

Citi Center Board chairman John William Poduska Sr. met this week with a representative of Attorney General Martha Coakley's office after being contacted, the center confirmed. It was unclear whether the attorney general intends to launch a full investigation, and Coakley's office would neither confirm nor deny the status of an inquiry.

Through a Citi Center spokesman, Poduska declined to talk about the meeting. He did release a statement.

"Anytime that there is misinformation about the center, we are prompt to brief the attorney general's staff on the facts, and we have done so in this case," the statement read.

Coakley's office isn't alone in questioning the operations of the center, which last year paid its president, Josiah Spaulding Jr., a $1.2 million bonus despite years of budget deficits and a recent decision to cut the run of the organization's popular, free production of Shakespeare on the Boston Common from three weeks to one.

State Senator Jack Hart of South Boston, whose sponsorship led in part to $350,000 in state allocations to the Center in each of the last two years, said he was disturbed by the recent Globe reports, particularly to hear of the decision to pay Spaulding the bonus for completing his contract.

"I'm concerned that the money that we are spending, and the money I advocated for, is being spent inappropriately," Hart said. "If it's being spent inappropriately, then we have a real problem."

This week, the board of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which has provided the Citi Center with more than $1 million since 1989, voted to require that leaders provide more information about the organization's finances and programs before receiving a $60,400 grant the council allocated for this year.

"I think it's fully appropriate that if questions and concerns are raised around an organization we are funding, we want to make certain the public has confidence in our investment of tax dollars," said Anita Walker, the MCC's executive director.

Recent Globe reports detailed Spaulding's bonus and the center's hiring of Spaulding's wife as its website manager. Charity specialists also questioned the center's decision to employ companies either owned or managed by some of the group's trustees.

This week, the Citi Center, which has voiced support for Spaulding and criticized the Globe reports, hired Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm whose specialties include crisis management, and sent a 1,200-word letter from its board to 15,000 supporters, donors, and journalists to defend its practices.

Stacy Palmer, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Chronicle of Philanthropy, says the damage might have already been done. Attention from the attorney general, she said, might make it only harder for the Citi Center to raise money. "It certainly adds a cloud over the organization," Palmer said.

But Bruce Flessner of the fund-raising consulting firm Bentz Whaley Flessner in Minneapolis, said the crisis could create another motivation.

"There may be people who actually decide now it's a time to rally around an important cultural treasure under attack," he said.

State money has become increasingly important with the center already struggling to attract support. Individual contributions fell from just over $1 million in fiscal 2006 to $650,000 in fiscal 2007, according to the center. Corporate giving rose from $1.4 million to $2.1 million, but $1.3 million of that came from the first year of Citibank's long-term payment in exchange for naming rights to the former Wang Center.

Legislators have provided $350,000 in each of the last two years to pay for the free Shakespeare program and to help create "a pilot program to expand performances to Springfield and other cities," according to the state budget.

Hart said he was "floored" to hear the Center had reduced the Shakespeare program, which attracted 100,000 people to the Common last summer but, due to a shortened run, drew fewer than 40,000 this summer.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he was disturbed by the state's decision to authorize a second, $350,000 grant this fiscal year when the Citi Center did not do Shakespeare in Springfield this summer with the money provided in the first grant.

"This isn't a $10,000 grant," Widmer said. "It's a $350,000 grant, which suggests something meaningful be done in this fiscal year."

The Center had planned to hold performances in Springfield this year until Governor Mitt Romney pulled most of its $350,000 allocation before leaving office, Spaulding said this week. By the time Governor Deval Patrick restored the money, Springfield officials and Spaulding determined it was too late to stage a production for 2007.

"The concept was, 'Let's postpone it to '08 and do it right,' " Spaulding said.

This week, Spaulding met with Springfield officials to plan the 2008 production.

He said final plans, budgets, and dates for the Springfield performances will be made after November.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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