Librarian of Congress James H. Billington launched the James Madison Council in 1990 to support the library. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

They enjoy private dinners served on crystal-laden tables in the marbled hall of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building. They mingle with members of Congress and the Supreme Court at invitation-only performances and lectures. They travel the world to hobnob with international politicians and performers.

They are the one-percenters who make up the James Madison Council, a loosely organized group of donors brought together by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington to support the country’s oldest federal cultural institution. Considered an innovative public-private partnership when Billington launched the council in 1990, the group’s contributions have supported the National Digital Library, the National Book Festival and the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, among other library programs. Its members have donated books, maps and other cultural artifacts to the library’s collection.

But like its 86-year-old leader, the James Madison Council is a throwback to a different time. Although its mission is outreach, the group is insular and exclusive. Membership is by invitation and individual donations go undisclosed. This year, the group numbers 69 — a who’s who of industry titans and philanthropists from Detroit, Philadelphia, Dallas and New York — who contribute $25,000 a year and receive exclusive access to the institution and its collections. Although they’ve raised millions, they’ve spent almost half of their recorded contributions on private parties, exhibition receptions, travel and employees and consultants, financial statements from the council and the library show.

Now that Billington will retire at year’s end, it is unclear whether the organization he created will continue to exist under a new librarian. “We have operated primarily because of our relationship with the librarian and his staff,” said H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a Philadelphia philanthropist and media tycoon. “And when the new successor librarian is appointed, we’ll determine if we’ll continue.”

The incoming librarian will have the final say, because the group serves at the pleasure of the office, according to council chairman David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group. Rubenstein said that he hopes the group will host more public events and raise more money, and that the new appointee will embrace its efforts.

Billington declined to be interviewed. The Library of Congress’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the spending issues but said the council “will continue robustly” under Rubenstein.

“The philanthropists of the James Madison Council have made many things possible over the past 25 years — primarily in the area of public access — that otherwise would simply not have occurred,” Library of Congress spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg said in an e-mail.

“Without question” it will continue, philanthropist Buffy Cafritz said. “Of course I have a great fondness for Dr. Billington and his wife, Marjorie, but bottom line, my interest is the Library of Congress.”

Critics of Billington, including many current and retired library employees, say the James Madison Council has done little to address the major problems facing the institution. A $630 million-a-year operation with 3,200 employees, the library was criticized by congressional investigators in March for its technological failures. Its staff has been reduced dramatically, and it faces a major storage crisis that has resulted in books being damaged or destroyed, The Washington Post reported. But instead of endowing curators or librarians, as is the practice at universities, or raising money to purchase long-delayed storage units, the James Madison Council spent five years raising funds for a dormitory for visiting scholars, a project that failed.

“He [Billington] likes to associate with rich and famous people,” said Maureen Moore, a library cataloguer who retired after 27 years. “To my knowledge, they’ve never put money toward anything useful.”

Among its wealthy members are people with regional and national profiles, including Albert H. Small, Donald Newhouse, David Koch, Jerry Jones, Marjorie Fisher and Barbara Guggenheim. The group is not incorporated, a choice that dates back to its early years, when members decided not to create a nonprofit corporation. “Our loyalty was to Jim Billington, not just to the Library of Congress,” said Lenfest, a former chairman.

The chairman is selected by Billington, and new members must be introduced to the group by current ones. Billington and his staff determine how donations are spent. “It’s sort of personal to him,” said Leonard Silverstein, the group’s longtime treasurer.

Billington’s influence is substantial, as are the benefits he accrues. The group has paid for his first-class airfare, $1,000-a-night hotels in Rome and Florence, chauffeured cars and Acela trains. Its donations have allowed Billington to travel around the country and the world, meeting with Henry Kissinger, Lady Diana, Michael Feinstein and Valery Gergiev, all captured in a glossy biannual magazine.

Many expensive trips

Internal travel records obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request show Billington made 44 trips between 2010 and 2014, costing the library and the donor council more than $125,000. And council members picked up the tab for other travel — including three all-expenses-paid trips to the Bahamas for Billington and his wife to meet with B.F. Saul, a council member who runs a Bethesda commercial real estate business.

Billington made annual trips each July to San Francisco, often using personal days in the middle of his journey to visit Bohemian Grove, a private men’s cultural club that hosts an annual encampment for the rich and powerful that same month, internal travel documents show. Records show Billington’s July 2012 trip cost $4,600 and included five work days (including the two travel days) and seven personal days. Other frequent destinations were Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. In 2010, he flew to New York City seven times, usually staying overnight at the Princeton Club, a choice that requires special permission because the room costs more than federal travel rules allow. He received that waiver, as well as for similar stays in other cities.

Fundraising trips are just one of the perks. As “ambassadors of the library,” council members have made nine “Great Libraries of the World” trips to London, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, St. Petersburg and other world-class cities. Billington went on all but the most recent trip to Berlin and Vienna in 2013. In 2011, he and his wife led a 14-day excursion to Rome and Florence. Travel documents show the couple’s airfare and daily expenses topped $32,000, which were all reimbursed by the council. Marjorie Billington was invited by the library’s director of development, Susan Siegel, who wrote that her participation “will benefit the Library by strengthening relationships between the Library, Council members and Italian officials.”

The group meets twice a year for weekend meetings featuring gourmet dinners, discussions with high-profile authors and private concerts. In May 2010, the group met in Dallas and enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the new Cowboys football stadium, thanks to member and Cowboys owner Jones. Last October, the council met in the District and was entertained by Frank Sinatra Jr. in celebration of his father’s 100th birthday.

“It’s a serious group of people, it’s not just ‘join for the sake of joining,’ ” Cafritz said. “These are people who are dedicated to the library and to Jim Billington.”

Library officials refused to disclose individual donations made by council members, citing their “respect and appreciation” for their donors. “Cumulative information is available on our financial reports,” the spokeswoman said.

Documents detailing the council’s finances show $27 million in donations since 1994, and an additional $16 million in membership contributions, which are tax-deductible. The financial reports also reveal the high cost of running the group. Library personnel, contracted personnel, travel and receptions totaled $20 million, or 46 percent of total contributions. The library’s 2014 financial statement, the most recent available, shows the council’s expenses outpaced contributions by almost 30 percent.

Conflicting financial statements

Rubenstein said contributions are greater than the financial statements show because of how they are applied. As an example, he cited the $60 million gift from the council’s founding chairman, John Kluge, which established the John W. Kluge Center in 2000 to bring scholars to the library to study and to engage with policymakers. The center also awards the Kluge Prize for the Humanities. The gift was moved to a separate fund, and had a balance of $56 million in 2014, according to financial statements.

Other gifts, including donations of rare books, are difficult to track because they are not specified in the financial statements. In addition, there’s no accounting of funds for programs that fail. In 2011, for example, Billington announced that the library raised $17.5 million to create a residence for visiting researchers. Architectural renderings were unveiled at a council meeting, and donors were publicly thanked for their gifts. But the project was scrapped after costs skyrocketed. Library officials told donors they deposited the money into an endowment that will provide housing grants to visiting scholars. But the library’s 2014 financial statement does not include a fund with that purpose.

A library spokeswoman said the money was used to create the “Knowledge Navigators” fund. Created in 2013, the fund supports an “intern program to provide firsthand experience and train future leaders,” according to its 2014 financials. The balance is $4.7 million, a quarter of the $17.5 million Billington had announced. The Library of Congress declined to explain the difference. Several government watchdog groups find the group’s exclusivity and lack of transparency troublesome.

“Programming of the library shouldn’t be skewed to the high donors because it’s a governmental institution for the general public,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch. “A government entity is different than being a nonprofit. I don’t agree that just because they are large donors, more benefits of the library ought to accrue to them exclusively.”

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said an organization that is related to a government entity should be transparent.

“It is a reasonable expectation that their activities would be publicly disclosed,” Krumholz said. “As we all know too well, it is these kinds of relationships, where you either have a business connection or in this case are part of the less-than-one-
percent that provides access and influence to policymakers that is invaluable.”

Rubenstein said he hopes to introduce some changes. He said a review of the bylaws has begun to determine whether the governance should change, and he wants to raise the membership contribution and increase the number of members to include people from different backgrounds.

“The Madison Council has a strong foundation, and I think we can raise awareness and donations in the coming years,” he said.

Rubenstein thinks the Library of Congress can occupy the same social sphere as the New York Public Library, which attracts the darlings of film, sports, media and fashion to its annual events.

“Everybody in New York City wants to be part of the New York Public Library,” Rubenstein said. “It has social cachet. There’s no reason why the nation’s library can’t be like the New York Public Library.”