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Ex-Director Convicted of Stealing Items From Museum : Embezzlement: He secretly sold or traded works from the Southwest’s collection worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The former director of the Southwest Museum was convicted Wednesday of removing items worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from the museum’s collection and illegally putting them up for sale or trade.

Patrick Houlihan, believed by national museum officials to be the highest-ranking museum officer ever tried for stealing from his own institution, could receive a maximum sentence of about six years in prison.

He was found guilty on five counts of embezzlement and two counts of grand theft and was acquitted on four other counts.

All of the guilty counts concerned items he took after 1983, when the museum’s board of trustees declared that it had to approve any deletions from the collection.

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“I guess the jury thought that what I did for the museum after 1983 made me a criminal,” Houlihan said as he left the courtroom after the verdict.

During the five-week trial, Houlihan had admitted taking the 15 items in question. But he said he used them in legitimate transactions that resulted in the museum adding important pieces to its vast collection of American Indian art and artifacts.

The prosecution successfully argued that no matter what he did with the items--which included baskets, textiles, kachina dolls and paintings--it was a crime to take them.

“When the defendant exceeds that authority and disposes of the property of the Southwest Museum, that is embezzlement pure and simple,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Alexis de la Garza told the jury during closing arguments.

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She also disputed his claim that he derived no personal gain from the transactions. One of her witnesses, an Arizona dealer, testified that he had paid $70,000 to Houlihan for a 19th-Century Navajo textile. Museum officials say the piece is a rare poncho worth about $230,000.

“I am very satisfied with the verdict,” said De La Garza on Wednesday. She added that she intends to ask that Houlihan go to prison for the crimes. Sentencing is scheduled for April 2.

At that time, Houlihan’s attorney, George Buehler, plans to ask that the verdicts be set aside. He said that the jury did not understand the significance of the 1983 resolution by the museum board.

“It has been our position that for Dr. Houlihan to have gone against that document does not make him guilty of theft,” Buehler said, “if he did it in service to the museum.”

If the verdict is not set aside, Houlihan will appeal, Buehler said.

During the trial, Houlihan portrayed himself as a man almost at war with the board that hired him to revive a museum that had fallen into disorganization and disrepair.

Soon after arriving, Houlihan hired new staff members, oversaw the reorganization of museum storage facilities and revamped exhibitions. But Houlihan testified that the board failed to raise funds needed for the overhaul it directed him to do.

“I felt they had abrogated their obligations as trustees to care for the property,” he said at one point during his three days on the stand.

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Houlihan said he began removing items that he thought were expendable and using them in complex cash-trade transactions that he felt would enhance the museum’s collection. He admitted falsifying inventory documents to cover his actions.

Houlihan kept his actions secret, he said, maintaining to the board and staff that the museum’s collection was sacrosanct and not to be traded or sold. Houlihan said he feared that if his actions were discovered, the board would force him to sell far more items to support the museum’s operating budget and pay off its debts.

But De La Garza cast suspicion on his motives.

“He can’t even tell you how much was going out,” De La Garza told the jury. “He can’t tell you to whom. He can’t tell you how much money was going to whom.”

Houlihan left the museum in 1987 after a final dispute with the board. About two years later, more than 100 valuable items were discovered missing during an inventory, museum officials say.

A three-year FBI investigation, during which about 25 of the items were recovered, resulted in the charges filed against Houlihan.

In addition to the criminal charges, the museum has filed a lawsuit against Houlihan. It claims that, in all, he removed 127 items worth an estimated $2.2 million from the collection.

The suit asks for the return of the items, plus more than $1 million in compensation.

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Houlihan was released on his own recognizance after the verdict. He lives in Taos, N.M., where he is executive director of the Millicent Rogers Museum.


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