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Park service reviews Brown Foundation report

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The National Park Service is reviewing a report that could lead to penalties being levied against a foundation led by the daughter of the lead plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.

The Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General conducted the review after an audit released in December 2011 found more than $600,000 in questionable costs and widespread problems with how the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research spent federal money before it was kicked out of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka.

David Smith, superintendent of the Brown site, said Friday that the National Park Service was given the report April 29 and has been given 90 days to finish its review and determine what action it will take. Options include everything from doing nothing to seeking reimbursement from the Brown foundation and its leader, Cheryl Brown Henderson. He said he couldn't comment about the contents of the report. And the Office of Inspector General isn't releasing the report until the park service finishes its review.

Foundation attorney Kevin Fowler said he hasn't been provided a copy of the report.

"We hope the report is going to resolve the concerns with the original audit," he said. "We have had concerns that we have communicated not only to the National Park Service but to the Office of Inspector General."

Brown Henderson was instrumental in gaining federal funding to start the Brown site in the former all-black Topeka school where her sister, Linda Brown, and another plaintiff's child were students. The site opened in 2004 amid fanfare, including a visit from then-President George W. Bush, as the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the ruling overturning segregated education.

The foundation began operating rent-free in the historic site's second floor and received more than three-quarters of its budget from the park service -- about $300,000 annually.

But while the foundation had a longstanding relationship with the park service, problems arose after Brown Henderson was picked to lead the National Park site in 2010. She held the position for just six months before resigning to resume leading the foundation she co-founded.

A federal investigation released before the audit found Brown Henderson had failed to limit her involvement with the foundation while she led the National Park site. That involvement was seen as a conflict of interest because the foundation received so much of its budget from the park service while employing her sister and boyfriend.

The ensuing audit examined the foundation's finances from October 2008 through September 2011. Out of about $900,000 in federal funding awarded over that span, the auditors found nearly $621,000 in questionable costs.

Among the problematic expenses the audit identified was the $72,000 paid annually to the foundation's chief operating officer. He was identified in the federal investigation as the boyfriend of Brown Henderson. Because the foundation paid for an outside accountant, the auditors could "not see any benefit" to his duties.

Auditors also said the foundation inappropriately spent money on fundraising, personal mobile telephone expenses and home Internet service for employees, and personal household expenses that didn't benefit the foundation.