Conflict of interest won’t thwart MPR mansion sale

Minnesota Public Radio officials acknowledge that the purchase of a $1.7 million Lake of the Isles mansion violated its conflict-of-interest policy.

Thomas Kigin, MRP executive vice president, told The Business Journal, "We did not do the kind of staff work that we should have."

MPR purchased the home from Margaret Wurtele and her husband, Angus Wurtele.

MPR board members voted to purchase the home without being told that Margaret Wurtele's mother, Joanne Von Blon, is a lifetime trustee of the public radio network. Von Blon voted to approve MPR's purchase of the house from her daughter, as did all of the other trustees who voted.

Von Blon told The Business Journal "My guess is everyone on the board is perfectly aware that Margaret is my daughter."

MPR spokesperson Suzanne Perry said the failure to notify board members of the conflict was "just an oversight."

Said Perry, "We already have procedures in place to uncover conflicts of interest. For example, each trustee and officer is required each year to review our conflict-of-interest policy and to fill out a questionnaire listing outside business interests. However, following this incident, management has assured the board it will make an extra effort to ensure all conflicts are fully disclosed."

She said the purchase of the house will stand and that MPR's efforts to sell it will continue.

Famed architect William Purcell built the mansion, known as the Catherine Gray House, 2409 E. Lake of the Isles Parkway, nearly 100 years ago. When it's sold, MPR will pour the proceeds into a new capital fund-raising campaign. The sale price of the 6,474-square-foot, five-bedroom, six-bath house is $1.85 million.

Perry said the Wurteles have agreed to donate "a significant portion" of the $1.7 million they received for the house to MPR. She declined to reveal how much of the sale price the couple donated.

Doris Rubenstein, author of "The Good Corporate Citizen: A Practical Guide," said she thinks MPR's real estate venture is "really creative fund-raising."

Rubenstein said, "[Nonprofits] are having to be more creative and going somewhat beyond their missions. [MPR] is looking for big bucks, and big-bucks fund-raising is a very difficult thing."

Still, she added, "I have a couple of friends who have stopped giving to MPR because they feel that they've gone way beyond their mission."

Rubenstein is a consultant with Richfield-based PDP Services, which works with firms to create policies for responsible corporate citizenship. She praises the Wurtele and Von Blon families for their generosity over the years: "Their names are all over the town for various charitable things."

The Wurteles have donated to the Walker Art Center, the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Rubenstein advises people to limit the number of charities that they donate to each year. She said those who give small amounts to a dozen or more charities should consider giving larger individual amounts to just a few worthy causes.

"If you give two or three gifts with the same amount of money, you have a little bit more impact that way. When you limit the number of gifts you make, you can really get to know the charities you're supporting," she said.