WASHINGTON -- Sixteen years ago, a small band of women working on Capitol Hill launched a campaign to "Free the Sisters of the Crypt" and raised $85,000 in modest, private donations to move an unfinished, 10-ton marble statue of suffrage pioneers from the basement of the U.S. Capitol to the Rotunda.
That one achievement has since grown into a movement to build a national museum in Washington honoring women's contributions to American history. Big-name sponsors, including actress Meryl Streep, have pledged their support, and the museum's organizers have raised nearly $10 million.
Yet 16 years after organizers began in 1996, there is still no National Women's History Museum (NWHM). Its leaders have failed to secure -- or even identify -- a location for a building, and sometimes have downplayed the very idea that they need one.
Interviews with NWHM staff, board members and advisers reveal that the museum organizers have developed little in the way of educational programming or connections within the academic community that would help them realize their goal. Instead, they have made misleading claims about the content of their website and failed to share with the public the few, but in some cases very valuable, historical artifacts they do possess.
In addition, internal museum documents and public records obtained by The Huffington Post show a history of mismanagement and potential conflicts of interest that, according to nonprofit watchdogs, may violate Internal Revenue Service guidelines.
The museum's president, CEO and chair of the board of directors is Joan Bradley Wages, a lobbyist and onetime flight attendant. Ann E.W. Stone, a veteran Republican political operative, serves as senior vice president of the board. Stone is also a key vendor for the museum and its largest contributor of in-kind, or non-cash, donations.
Contrary to the recognized norms of museum building and fundraising, NWHM has obtained little in the way of support from major foundations. Its leaders have relied mostly on direct mail efforts, which have left the project far from its financial goals but have helped Stone's companies, which sell direct mail services to the museum. In recent years, according to sources close to the museum, Wages -- who is paid a low six-figure salary -- and Stone have forced out board members who asked difficult questions about the museum or who sought to recruit independent administrators.
To be sure, building any new museum in Washington -- particularly on the National Mall -- is no small feat. Supporters must overcome a long set of logistical and legislative hurdles. The newest addition to "America's front yard," the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, faced decades of political opposition in Congress and wrangling over a site before it broke ground for a building in February.
Indeed, NWHM insiders, historians, fundraising experts and other museum professionals interviewed by HuffPost said they have until now been unwilling to share their concerns about the women's museum for fear that ideological opponents in Congress would use their criticisms to justify killing the project.
The great irony, however, is that the biggest obstacles for the women's museum appear to be the same people who are in charge of making it happen.
Wages said she is proud of the museum's progress, noting that other museums on the National Mall have taken 20 years or more to build. Stone said that her work for the museum has been "selfless and dedicated" and that her companies have put more "effort into the museum" than the "tiny amounts of money" she has made.
Wages also said that Streep, the museum's most visible supporter, wasn't "interested in talking to reporters" for this story. But when contacted directly about some of HuffPost's findings, Streep agreed to a phone interview.
"I'm hopeful, and I have full confidence that the board will act swiftly, but carefully, to remediate whatever problems have been uncovered," she said, "and I remain dedicated to the idea of making a national women's museum in our capital a reality and supportive of the board towards that end."
'THIS APPEARS VERY, VERY UNUSUAL'
Wages and Stone -- who is not related to the co-author of this story -- have been at NWHM in various roles since its launch. Together, Wages, a Democrat, and Stone, a Republican, give the project a nonpartisan patina. But they have also shielded its operations from public scrutiny.
"There is no official way for anyone in the public to have any say in what decisions are made by 'the organization known as' the NWHM," Denise Baer, a Boston University political scientist and a close observer of the museum, said in an email. "Their decision processes to-date have been closed and insular, and not representative of the full range of views."
In her four years promoting the museum, Streep said she had never been invited to a board meeting until late March -- after Wages got wind of HuffPost's investigation. "Believe me, I'm going," said Streep of the scheduled June meeting.
The invitation was one of a series of hastily made changes that followed the museum's hiring of well-known Washington lawyer Lanny Davis -- President Bill Clinton's special counsel during his impeachment -- after HuffPost began asking questions for this story. Davis said he is being paid $25,000 by the museum. (Full disclosure: Davis occasionally blogs for HuffPost.)
When she became president of the museum in 2007, Wages seemed like a plausible candidate to head a legislative campaign to secure a dedicated site. "[My] credentials to lead the NWHM are primarily due to my experience as a lobbyist in Washington on behalf of three Flight Attendant unions," she told HuffPost in an emailed statement.
Stone, too, seemed like an ideal backer: a well-connected Washington insider on the fault line of women's politics, a pro-choice Republican with good fundraising credentials and a knack for publicity. Stone has been a member of the museum's board since it was founded and has twice served as treasurer. She has been the senior vice president since 2007.
But a closer look reveals a project rife with apparent conflicts of interest, sloppy recordkeeping, murky objectives and a stubborn resistance to outside oversight.
As president and CEO, Wages earns a salary of $167,537. Since 2009, she has also served as chair of the board of directors. Wages and Stone both said they leave the room during board meetings when potential conflicts arise.
"I and the Board agree it would be better under 'best practices' corporate governance guidelines for there to be a different Board Chair from the CEO," Wages said in a written statement. She added that the board is "actively" seeking someone who is "willing and qualified" to be chair and said she would step down "immediately" when that person is found.
Since 2005, the museum has paid Stone's two companies at least $194,000 for their direct mail services, according to records provided by the museum. The Stone Group oversees mailings to the museum's list of supporters, while Capstone Lists rents mailing lists to the museum for solicitations.
The vice president of the Stone Group and Stone's business partner for the past 30 years, Lora Lynn Jones, owns a third company, direct mail brokerage Total Direct Response, which also does business with NWHM.
Stone denied that her status as a vendor, donor and board member for the museum constitutes a conflict of interest. "It has been handled totally in keeping with what [nonprofit governance website] BoardSource and other sources have laid out. [Museum board] committees are aware of it, and it's been fully disclosed," she said.
But two experts say that Stone's multiple roles with the museum, while not illegal, fall well outside typical board-vendor arrangements.
"This certainly isn't a best practice," said Ken Berger, president of the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. "Nonprofits are really discouraged from hiring the services of board members, and while technically you can get away with it, even then it’s really bad. Our advice is that vendors should step off the board [if they want to do business with a nonprofit]," he said.
David Schultz, an expert in nonprofit law at Hamline College in Saint Paul, Minn., said the arrangement with Stone presents "enormous potential for self-dealing and conflicts of interest."
This is not the first time Stone has appeared to profit from such overlapping interests.
In 2010, the Center for Public Integrity investigated the pro-abortion rights political action committee Republicans for Choice, of which Stone is the founder, president and treasurer. The center reported that most of the money the PAC raised did not go toward helping elect candidates. Instead it went to Stone, either through fees paid to her two companies or reimbursements for her expenses, including parking tickets.
At the time, Stone defended the PAC's structure, saying "a big part of the aid we give candidates is not money." She said hiring her own companies was cost-effective and denied that the PAC was primarily a profit-making venture. If it were, she said, it would be "the worst money-making scheme ever."
NWHM board member Madelyn Jennings, a former newspaper executive who helped start the Newseum, defended Stone's business dealings with the women's museum. She told HuffPost she is "satisfied with the data" that Stone has presented to the board about payments to her companies for direct mail and said other direct mail vendors would cost more. "But there's no question I can see why, for people who haven't seen the numbers, it raises the question 'What’s that all about?'" Jennings said.
Stone and Jones, however, aren't simply for-profit vendors to the museum. They are also the museum's biggest volunteers, followed closely by Wages -- an arrangement that Berger at Charity Navigator characterized as "very, very unusual."
Donations of volunteer time can help to boost a nonprofit's overall financial picture in the eyes of potential donors and grantmaking foundations. Volunteers report their hours and the fair market value of their services, which is then recorded as revenue from in-kind donations on the organization's financial documents, adding to its overall revenue, a key indicator of financial health.
The museum's total revenue has jumped considerably in recent years due to the influx of in-kind donations, the vast majority of them in the form of volunteer hours. In 2008, the museum reported $551,550 worth of in-kind donations, an increase of more than 500 percent over the previous year. In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, the museum reported $456,303 worth of in-kind donations.
In a written statement to HuffPost, museum representatives defended those numbers, saying that in-kind donations "reflect the dedication of our unpaid staff and volunteers and offer no tax benefit to the NWHM." As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the museum pays no taxes to begin with.
In 2010, according to IRS records and documents provided by NWHM, the Stone Group donated a total of $371,824 in in-kind donations, making it the biggest single non-cash contributor to the museum. Volunteer time accounted for the vast majority of this amount, with personal expenses and software programs totaling a few thousand dollars.
The year before, Stone personally donated $27,060 worth of volunteer time, according to documents provided by the museum. In 2010, that number shot up. Stone reported having performed 1,717 hours -- nearly 43 weeks' worth, at 40 hours per week -- of volunteer work for NWHM, split between her board duties and other services such as "social media coordination" and public speaking. Of these, she counted 781 hours as in-kind donations, valued at between $150 and $1,000 an hour. Her total personal contribution of time, she said, was worth $201,450.
Jones reported donating even more time -- 2,050 hours -- in 2010, for a total value of $164,426, according to documents the museum provided to HuffPost. Wages said that Jones' work included "chores," such as "moving furniture [and] running errands to pick up supplies."
Wages is no stranger to eye-popping in-kind donations, herself. According to the museum's records, in 2009 -- the only year she appears to have donated hours -- Wages provided $189,462 worth of volunteer time. She had initially valued her time even more highly, calculating 1,450 hours as worth $398,750. But that figure didn't sit well with the museum's auditors.
According to a statement from the museum, the auditors "recommended that [Wages] could not charge more than $25 per hour for many of the donated hours," a steep drop from the $275 per hour at which she had initially valued her time. Consequently, they "recommended that [Wages' in-kind donation] be reduced by $209,288." Still, an in-kind donation of nearly $190,000 is striking.
Wages explained that her part-time work as president of the museum was officially only 35 hours a week but that she "worked considerably more. At the same time, I also had a consulting business, and my hourly rate was considerably more than my hourly rate if you divided it out for the museum." She said she valued her pro bono time at the museum according to her hourly rate of $275 as a lobbyist, unaware that the fair market value of her services to the museum was, in fact, much less than that.
"On the face of it this appears very, very unusual," Berger emailed when asked whether this level of volunteer time is typical for an organization like NWHM. "We do not see this level of in-kind hours normally, of course the devil is in the details and what kind of documentation they provide to the IRS," he said. "But this is something I suspect would be of interest to the IRS or the State Attorney General to have a look at."
The museum's board members and legal representatives denied any impropriety. "They ought to be complimented," said the museum's pro bono lawyer, Ian Portnoy, a Washington attorney who works at the same firm as Lanny Davis.
Jones declined to speak to HuffPost, but stood by her calculation of her own hours, saying in a written statement, "Some days I volunteered long hours, some days short hours and then there are days I don't volunteer there at all."
Stone, however, had trouble explaining in a phone interview the more-than-sevenfold jump in the value of her donated time from 2009 to 2010. When HuffPost asked her what caused the increase, she grew flustered and said she would check her datebook and send back an explanation. Stone has yet to reply.
When asked how she found time to operate two small businesses and run a PAC while donating so many hours to the museum, Stone responded, "I don't know what to say to that. I guess from your standpoint, you can look at this and see what you see, but from my standpoint, [I know] what's in our hearts."
'A BEACON TO WOMEN ALL OVER THE WORLD'
Heartfelt intentions are not enough to build a museum.
Richard West, founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and interim director of the soon-to-expand Textile Museum, said successful museums share three things: a clear mission, good programming, and an abundance of money and expertise.
The National Women's History Museum boasts none of these attributes.
To the outside world, however, it has a powerful and highly visible champion in Meryl Streep.
In the past few years, the Oscar-winning actress has become the public face of the museum. Streep told the Los Angeles Times in December that, with a physical presence, NWHM "would be a beacon to women all over the world, because there really is no such museum."
Streep believes so strongly in the project that she has pledged $1 million, of which she has already given $400,000. Upon learning of HuffPost's findings, she expressed sadness during a candid phone interview.
Asked whether she regretted getting involved in the project, the actress turned philosophical.
"We enter into these commitments in good faith," she said, "you have to."
Streep said she isn't giving up on the museum, not while the contributions to American history and the struggle for equal rights of more than half the U.S. population remain relegated to small, regional museums.
As she reminded audiences at a 2010 museum fundraising dinner in Washington, "There is a postal museum, a spy museum and a textile museum. There's even a building that's a museum about buildings. But there is no national women's museum."
For the past 16 years, NWHM executives have made finding a location for the museum their number one priority. In a written statement, they claimed to have "evaluated 43 potential building sites" around Washington, including the annex of the Old Post Office Pavilion, now slated for a Trump hotel, and the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, which a new National Museum of the American Latino also has its eye on. But each of these locations has been unsuitable or unavailable, for one reason or another.
In recent years, the museum has focused its lobbying efforts almost exclusively on convincing Congress to designate a spot where it can build on the National Mall, an even more exclusive piece of real estate.
"Getting something on the Mall is no mean feat," said Edward Linenthal, author of "Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum." "It shouldn't be easy. This is the central memorial space in this country."
Since 2001, female legislators from both parties have repeatedly introduced legislation to approve the sale of a site for the women's museum on or near the Mall. Each time, the bills have stalled in the House or Senate. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) is currently working on new legislation.
But not everyone appreciates the singular focus on a building site. "Their understanding of what they were doing is very narrow and shallow and entirely focused on getting a piece of property," said Ellen Dubois, a UCLA historian who was among 21 nationally known academics and museum professionals who served on an NWHM program review committee in 1998.
For now, the closest thing the museum has to a physical presence is its offices in a shabby 1970s office building in a rundown neighborhood of Alexandria, Va. There, locked inside a small, windowless storage room, are a few wooden display cases that contain the contents of an old school bus bequeathed to the museum in 2008 by Jeanne Schramm, a librarian from West Virginia. Appraised at nearly $100,000, this "preview" exhibit includes such authentic gems as a signed poem by abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe and an autographed book by suffragist Susan B. Anthony.
None of that windfall treasure trove has been put on display to the public. The museum has produced just four physical exhibits in New York and Washington since its founding. The last one, on women in business, was mounted in 2006.
SLIDESHOW: The National Women's History Museum So Far
National Women's History Museum
Last year, NWHM started a lecture series at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. In March, University of Pennsylvania professor Kathleen Brown gave a talk entitled "What Do Sex and Laundry Have to Do With It? Thinking About Daily Life as a Source of Historical Change," to some 40 people there.
Most of the museum's educational programming exists online. The museum refers to itself in its solicitation materials as "a renowned leader in online women's history education" and says its website features "award-winning" cyber exhibits.
"I think they've done an admirable job of building an online presence and network of support and of course, love the endorsement by Meryl Streep!" Ann Lewis, who co-chaired President Bill Clinton's Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History, wrote in an email. A liberal Democrat, Lewis met with NWHM leaders in 2000 and is on the organization's mailing list.
Still, there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum's website. Visitors will find articles on everything from female spies to women who have appeared on postage stamps. Wages said staff members pick topics, which they or, more often, interns research and write; the interns receive $5 an hour and academic credit. Doris Weatherford, a Florida-based popular historian who works part-time for NWHM as a "curator," checks most of the items for accuracy. Museum documents show she was paid $225 a month in 2010.
Asked to name the awards that NWHM has won for its online programming, Wages cited three websites that have included the museum on lists of women's history resources: Surfnetkids.com, Schmoop and MyReportLinks.com. None bestowed competitive awards on the museum, and at least two are online cheat sheets for students.
Wages, the CEO, has said the museum's goal is to raise between $150 million and $400 million in private funds and that the museum has brought in more than $6 million to date. But the museum's internal documents reveal that from March 1999 to the end of 2011, its income was $9.78 million. When told of the discrepancy, board member Susan Scanlan, the self-described "lefty on the board" who chairs the National Council of Women's Organizations, exclaimed, "That's good news!"
Relatively little of that money has come from grantmaking institutions or major donors, which are typically the main sources of museum start-up funding. Wages and others at NWHM insist that persuading Congress to approve a building site is an essential prerequisite to secure major funding.
But West, the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, said it isn't necessary to wait until a site is nailed down. His museum held 25 to 30 listening sessions with scholars, museum curators, educators, tribal leaders and politicians whose input formed the blueprint for the museum long before it was built.
"You have to figure out how you begin introducing yourself. The more programming you have when you're in formation, the better," he said.
'IT'S NOT AN ENTIRELY PROFESSIONAL ENTERPRISE'
As a lobbyist, Wages knows how to get things done on Capitol Hill. As HuffPost reported last year, when Republican senators placed a hold on NWHM legislation following complaints from conservatives who charged the museum would play up abortion rights, Wages moved to placate right-wing critics. She said the subject of abortion would not be addressed and soon posted an exhibit about motherhood and profiles of counter-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly on the website. She also stacked the board with well-connected Republican women and hired several consultants with strong GOP ties.
As a museum president, however, Wages lacks the academic credentials to lead an organization that hopes to take its place next to the Smithsonian Institution.
Her university degrees consist of a B.A. in mathematics from Auburn University and what had been listed, until recently, as an "MBA in Philosophy" from Columbia Pacific University, implying she had earned an advanced business degree.
But in response to questions from HuffPost, Wages said that the "B" in her "MBA" was "an error." The reference has since been changed to "Master's degree in Philosophy." She also said she was "not aware" that the California Attorney General's office shut down Columbia Pacific seven years after she received her degree for being a diploma mill that offered "totally worthless" certificates. She said she knew the correspondence school was not accredited at the time she enrolled, but "had no reason to believe that it would not obtain full accreditation."
Most major museums seek out prominent academics for their boards. The Smithsonian's African-American museum, for example, boasted an eminent scholarly advisory committee from the start. The museum's current leader, Lonnie Bunch, is a Ph.D. historian with decades of museum experience, most recently as president of the Chicago Historical Society.
By contrast, the leadership of NWHM appears to have all but excluded historians from a meaningful role in the endeavor, starting at the top.
In 1998, the museum assembled a program review committee with prominent women's historians like Dubois of UCLA and Allida Black, now of George Washington University. But according to Dubois, the scholars became disillusioned when they saw the focus shift away from scholarly matters.
"[Museum leadership] was not very interested in what the historians had to say," she recalled.
Black declined to discuss why she split with NWHM but suggested there may be other ways to honor women on the National Mall than building a brick-and-mortar museum.
In more recent years, the museum has made little apparent effort to build or maintain support within the academic community. Following her lecture at the Wilson Center, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania professor, told HuffPost she had never even heard of NWHM until a student of hers, who had been an intern there, mentioned it. That's all the more remarkable since Brown recently finished a three-year stint as president of the largest academic organization devoted solely to women's history, the prestigious Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.
Wages told HuffPost that she attended the conference with Jones and program director Nikki Emser for the first time last year. "NWHM had a booth in the exhibit area, where staff handed out brochures and recruited new members," she said.
Heather Huyck, head of the National Collaborative for Women's History Sites, called it "telling" that 2011 was the first time since NWHM's founding in 1996 that museum executives decided to attend the conference. "Would you do a museum of automobiles and not talk to Detroit?" Hyuck asked rhetorically. "I don't know of any major effort on [NWHM's] part to reach out to the very energetic and vibrant women's history community. It tells me that there's a disconnect."
Last year, armed with a rare grant, from the Hearst Foundations, the museum announced a plan to shore up its stable of experts and "convene a series of meetings with scholars and experts of women's history who will collaborate and establish the curatorial and exhibition plans for the Museum."
But prior to inquiries from HuffPost, the museum's website listed no scholarly advisers at all, and a recent check showed its "advisory board" page still says, "Check back soon for an updated list."
WATCH: A preview of a recent NWHM exhibit on "Women in Early Film."
In March, the museum posted a new scholars page, listing five members of a scholars advisory committee that will "meet routinely with NWHM" and eight others on a national scholars council who have agreed "to be available as needed." According to emails the museum provided to HuffPost, most of the 13 agreed to serve in recent weeks -- around the time Wages became aware of HuffPost's investigation.
Sonya Michel, a University of Maryland historian who serves on the newly formed scholars committee and helps coordinate the Wilson Center lectures, said, "It's not an entirely professional enterprise at this point."
'A TREMENDOUS HUNGER'
It will take more than a few new committees to build a real women's museum. Several critics said a shake-up of NWHM leadership was needed.
According to three people with direct knowledge of board operations, who requested anonymity because they said they fear retribution from the museum's leaders, Wages and Stone have fended off several attempts by board members to name an independent chair. They have removed or forced to resign anyone who questioned their joint authority.
Former museum officials said they were required to sign nondisclosure agreements and feared being sued if they openly discussed the museum's operations. This past January, NWHM approved its first-ever formal whistle-blower policy.
Despite all the problems that have plagued the project, "there is a tremendous hunger to have a museum devoted to women's history," said Baer, the Boston University historian. "I support that. My concern is it should be done right."
When asked to name individuals who possess the scholarly credentials, fundraising connections, managerial experience and vision that could shepherd a national women's museum into reality, sources suggested a wide array of women. More academic possibilities included Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University; Linda Kerber, a former president of the American Historical Association; Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums; and Page Harrington of the Sewall-Belmont House.
Other suggestions focused on women with political experience, including former White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers; University of Miami President Donna Shalala, the former secretary of health and human services; Melanne Verveer, ambassador at large for global women’s issues at the State Department; retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and former first lady Laura Bush, who was instrumental in raising money for the Smithsonian's African-American museum and is a member of its advisory council.
For now, Wages and Stone remain at the helm. Yet after 16 years, the museum's leadership is still unsure of where the project is ultimately headed.
"We have a lot of programming going on, so it doesn't need to necessarily be a building or exhibits online even," Wages told HuffPost, noting that NWHM is "exploring" by testing podcasts and making "some little videos" in an effort to reach younger women.
This "exploring" phase at NWHM could easily go on for another 16 years, as long as donors continue to fund it.
"If donors don't care how long it takes or what it costs to achieve [their] goals, then donors have only themselves to blame," said Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, an association of nonprofits.
"I put responsibility on the donors and the board members [to ask,] 'Why is it taking so long, and why is so much money being spent with so little outcome?'" Aviv said. "People should be asking questions."