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Medicine Park museum project draws Oklahoma state auditor's attention

A former board member-turned-critic of the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center said Medicine Park, the southwest Oklahoma town, duped donors into giving hundreds of thousands of dollars for a museum that may never open.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD Published: March 12, 2013

— An aquarium and natural history museum under development in southwest Oklahoma will be reviewed by the state auditor and inspector's office after people signed a petition requesting outside help.

More than two dozen residents of Medicine Park said they are concerned donations and grants are being mismanaged by city leaders and their nonprofit partners as ground is broken on a museum at the east entrance of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

The petition was circulated by Larry Meese, a former volunteer for the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center who said donors were duped into believing they were giving to a nonprofit when in fact they were giving to a municipality.

State law restricts municipalities from raising funds, and Meese and supporters said they are concerned the project may fail because the rules were not followed.

“It's going to end up costing our town — our town is going to be on the hook for things because of what our board of trustees and the two public trusts are doing,” said Judy Nesiba.

True, it was a city group and not the museum's nonprofit that accepted and is managing donations received for the museum — but that's how public trusts work, said Doug Kemper, who is managing the project.

Kemper, who headed aquarium openings in Seattle and in Tulsa and managed several zoos during the past 35 years, said he's already raised more than $1.5 million for the project.

The money — including grants from Comanche County Industrial Development Board, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation — specifically was set aside in a special museum project account, he said.

The museum will be built on property owned by the same trust, he said.

“This project is completely owned by the town of Medicine Park through the Medicine Park Economic Development Authority; the nonprofit museum doesn't own anything,” he said.

Though the nonprofit wasn't established until last year — three years after fundraising began for the museum — that group is only there to help manage and direct its development, Kemper said.

Petitioners complain that the authority is not tax exempt, as claimed, but Kemper said that's not the case.

The Internal Revenue Service website, however, outlines specific qualifications for a public trust that claims tax-exempt status, and there is no record that the Medicine Park authority has been designated as such.

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