Thursday, February 3, 2011

In airline museum drama, a lawsuit took a sneaky turn

Posted By on Thu, Feb 3, 2011 at 9:30 AM

click to enlarge A lawsuit pitted the Airline History Museum's members against the board.
  • A lawsuit pitted the Airline History Museum's members against the board.

What the Airline History Museum lacks in profile it makes up for in drama. Last fall, former Executive Director Paul Sloan admitted to stealing from the museum, which displays vintage aircraft in a hangar at the airport in downtown Kansas City.

At around the time that Sloan was being charged, a court case involving past and present museum members came in for a landing. One aspect of the case that was omitted from this week's feature story was the apparent attempt by one side to use a Trojan horse to keep the lawsuit from being dismissed.



The background: In 2007, three museum members sued the museum's directors for breach of duty. The members brought the suit on behalf of the museum. The objective was to obtain an admission or finding of guilt that could then be used to pursue a multimillion-dollar claim from the museum's insurance carrier.

A nonprofit cannot easily sue itself (or its insurance company), however. For the case to proceed, the plaintiffs needed to show that 50 or more museum members supported the idea that the board had mismanaged the museum and needed to be held accountable.

The plaintiffs were represented by the Barnes Law Firm. At one point, the firm sent a letter to the museum's members. The letter described the nature of the suit against Foe Geldersma, who was president of the museum when the alleged breach of duty occurred, and his fellow board members.

The letter said there was an allegation that "some form of tampering" may have occurred in a December 2006 election in which Geldersma defeated Sloan. Museum members who had voted in the election were asked to recast their ballots to the best of their recollection.

Authenticating election results was hardly the lawyers' only concern. At the bottom of the letter, above the signature line, was an additional sentence:

I understand that this is an action being taken by the membership of Save-a-Connie, (d.b.a. The Airline History Museum) and by signing below, I am representing that I am a current member of the organization and wish to join this action.
Translation: Tell us how you voted, and, oh, by the way, you're signing up to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit in which we're working for a contingency fee.

The "ballots" enabled the Barnes Law Firm to reach the 50 plaintiffs it needed to perpetuate the lawsuit. The defense argued that the new plaintiff list was a joke. Geldersma noted in an affidavit that four of the individuals who signed on to the lawsuit had written letters calling for his reappointment. (He had stepped down from the presidency when he got wind of the suit.) Other museum members came forward and said they had no intention of becoming a plaintiff when they reaffirmed their vote.

In 2009, a special master ruled that the plaintiffs needed to formally state that they were plaintiffs and had always wanted to be plaintiffs. The more explicit, yes-I'd-like-to-sue statements proved to be elusive. (Imagine that.) When the declarations failed to materialize, the defense asked for a dismissal, which the judge granted. The decision was upheld on appeal.

The sneaky attempt to recruit plaintiffs was not the only aspect of the case that left some current and former museum members shaking their heads. The lawsuit also went forward with the apparent support of Sloan, whose request for a full-time job had been rejected by the Geldersma-led board. The week the suit was filed, Sloan signed an affidavit alleging that Geldersma had allowed another board member to take home a life raft that had been donated to the museum.

Sloan's influence at the museum grew after Geldersma and his co-defendants stepped aside. While the case was pending, Sloan was appointed to the $120,000-a-year position that he wanted.

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