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A 19th century flag disrupts leadership at an Illinois museum and prompts a state investigation

This image provided by Heritage Auctions, shows 21-star U.S. flag. Illinois state investigators are scrutinizing the purchase by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum of this 21-star U.S. flag reportedly from 1818-1819 at the time that Illinois was admitted to the Union as the 21st state. HERITAGE AUCTIONS VIA AP

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The AP was alone in reporting that the executive inspector general for Illinois has begun an investigation into the purchase of a 19th century flag by the state-run Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, focusing on whether procedures were followed in purchasing the flag and whether money was spent properly. 

A source tipped John O’Connor to an internal tussle over a 21-star flag at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Upon interviewing sources he knew and finding new ones, O’Connor determined that the purchase was made without the required consultation of the museum’s collections committee.  

O’Connor followed with an open-records request, which showed that when the committee was consulted three weeks after the purchase was complete, a committee member had expressed concerns about the flag’s authenticity. That led O’Connor to find flag experts who could speak to the issue and he was directed to one of the nation’s top experts who  said he was familiar with the flag and was convinced that its construction and materials suggested a flag from the Civil War era, not from 1818.  

This story resulted from a creative use of FOIA, relying on a trusted source and finding corroboration among new ones, and undergoing a quick schooling in historic flags such that he could find the needed experts to break a new angle in the story. 

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