April 13, 2017 02:00 PM

Tim Chester, foreground; Billy Nungesser, background
Photo Illustration

The interim director of the Louisiana State Museum resigned this week, issuing a letter accusing Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and his staff of interfering with museum management and attempting to "commandeer" museum-owned apartments in a historic French Quarter building for personal use.

Nungesser denies the allegations, telling The New Orleans Advocate that interim director Tim Chester had not been moving quickly enough to find a permanent director or make other changes.

The Louisiana State Museum encompasses nine properties, five of them in New Orleans' French Quarter.

The State Museum is part of the state's Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which is overseen by the Lieutenant Governor's Office. But the museum also has a semi-independent board of directors.

It was during a Monday meeting of the board that Chester stepped down.

"Since last fall, the museum staff and board have been struggling with the Lieutenant Governor usurping the authority of the board with his staff writing and implementing staff position descriptions that are out of sync with the museum's brand and marketing and its internal management structure," Chester said in a letter to the board.

Chester, a consultant who took the interim position in October, also said Nungesser attempted to override museum officials and board members who objected to plans to loan U.S. Sen. John Kennedy artworks for his office (Kennedy has withdrawn the request).

"Some of the things in there are bald-faced lies," Nungesser said, referring to Chester's resignation letter as "cowardly."

"I think he's an agitated old man who was not moving quickly enough in anything I wanted done at the museum," Nungesser said. "I wanted accountability. I wanted to know where people were, what they were doing."

Chester was hired last fall as an interim replacement for Mark Tullos, who headed the museum from 2013 until Nungesser dismissed him in May 2016. At the time he was hired, Tullos was the fourth person to hold the job in five years.

When he was lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu pushed through legislation giving him, rather than the board, the power to hire and fire the museum director. Not long afterward, David Kahn, who had been hired two years earlier, resigned.

One of Chester's complaints centered on a vacant apartment in the Lower Pontalba Building, a historic state-owned building at Jackson Square.

"Keys to the museum apartment were taken away from our staff, and staff was told scheduling and use of that apartment would happen out of Baton Rouge," Chester told the board.

Nungesser said the request to turn over the keys stemmed from a tour he took soon after his term began in January 2016, when he was told that nobody was staying in the apartment. But when he went inside with a maintenance person, they found someone in the apartment, he said.

Nungesser said he had used the apartment two or three times and noted that Chester had stayed there for weeks when he was first hired. It also has hosted legislators, tourism officials, musicians and the grandson of the person who donated the building to the state, he said.

The museum has never been denied use of the apartment when it has asked for it, he said.

Chester also accused the lieutenant governor of "attempting to intimidate" museum staff to avoid paying the normal rental fees for hosting private, after-hours events at museum facilities.

When asked to pay the fees, an official in Nungesser's office replied, "Tim Chester doesn't own that museum. The lieutenant governor does," Chester said in his letter.

Nungesser said he has not held an event at any museum facility and never received an invoice from the museum. He said the allegation may refer to a time when his staff requested to host a seafood event at the museum — something the office routinely does at other museums around the state — and was told they would have to pay.