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.