New York museum’s former chief financial officer claims in lawsuit she was fired for raising concerns about director’s expenses

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The former chief financial officer of the Museum of Arts and Design (Mad) in New York is suing the museum, alleging she was fired after reporting alleged misconduct by the museum’s director. The lawsuit accuses the museum of retaliation and failing to have a compliant whistleblower policy.

According to the lawsuit filed by Denise Lewis, who worked at the museum from 2017 until her firing in January of this year, the museum’s director Timothy Rodgers sought to use the institution’s funds to pay for personal expenditures during a vacation in Mexico last October. After raising the issue with other leaders and board members at the museum, the lawsuit alleges, Rodgers pressured Lewis to resign and, when she refused, fired her. The lawsuit was filed on 22 March and first reported by Artnews.

The expenses at issue relate to a vacation Rodgers and his husband took in autumn of 2023, following a museum members’ trip to Mexico. In addition to charging a $600 rug to the museum’s American Express card, Rodgers allegedly sought reimbursement for vacation expenses that he paid for with his personal credit card, including hotel charges. After initially refusing, via the museum’s controller, to reimburse the expenses, “Rodgers then re-submitted the same expenses. Lewis told his assistant the expenses were not proper. Rodgers’s assistant claimed they were legitimate, but the expenses were for dates after the museum-sponsored trip.”

The lawsuit alleges the disagreement over the vacation expenses was part of a pattern that also included Rodgers seeking reimbursement for moving expenses related to his second home in Connecticut. The museum had already paid moving expenses related to his relocation to Manhattan from Arizona, where he was previously the director and chief executive of the Phoenix Art Museum prior to his hiring in 2021. The lawsuit also alleges that the museum agreed to pay all the expenses related to Rodgers’s husband’s healthcare coverage, though it does not do this for any other employee. Last autumn, “Lewis raised concerns to [the museum’s] human resources director that this differential treatment was discriminatory”, according to the lawsuit.

Lewis’s lawsuit alleges that the museum failed to have and implement an adequate whistleblower policy, as required for a non-profit of its size under New York law. It also claims that the museum retaliated against her by not providing severance pay after her firing, as other employees had received, and failing to provide her with copies of certificates for her Continuing Professional Education classes, which are essential for maintaining her license as a Certified Public Accountant.

Lewis is seeking damages including “all earnings she would have received but for [the museum’s] retaliatory treatment”. Rodgers is not a party to the lawsuit.

Lewis’s lawyer, Anne L. Clark, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, a spokesperson for the museum said: “These allegations are untrue. We look forward to making our case in court.”

Rodgers, who has been Mad’s director since September 2021, arrived at the museum after a long period of high turnover. From 2013 to 2021, the museum had 11 different leaders, six of them interim directors. At the time of his appointment, he told The New York Times that “the first thing I have to do is earn the trust of the staff”, adding: “You have to be fair and consistent. You have to be clear.”

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