In February, Donald Trump pardoned Michael Milken, the notorious financial criminal who in the early ’90s served less than two years of a ten-year sentence after pleading guilty to federal securities-fraud and conspiracy charges. So what is Milken up to now that he’s no longer a felon? Opening a DC museum.
Plans are under way to convert the old Riggs Bank headquarters—located a half block from the White House—into a new museum and conference space with a lofty, if somewhat puzzling, focus: the American Dream. The Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream, scheduled to open in 2023, will feature the stories of scientists, teachers, activists, and other leaders, while the conference center will host discussions and events on policy issues. “It’s a gift to the American people and the city of Washington,” says Milken spokesperson Geoffrey Moore.
In some ways, Milken is the embodiment of the American Dream—a middle-class kid who transformed himself into “the junk-bond king” and was the highest-paid executive in the history of Wall Street at the time. These days, however, many people consider him a leading symbol of America’s decade of greed.
Upon his release from prison in 1993, Milken—who was banned for life by the SEC but currently has what Forbes estimates is a $3.7-billion fortune—has turned his focus to philanthropy. He has plowed millions into cancer research, become a founding donor to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and established a think tank, the Santa Monica–based Milken Institute, that’s had a Washington presence for more than two decades. The annual Milken Institute Global Conferences attract top leaders from around the world.
Still, a museum? Across from the Treasury Department, of all places? “You do keep wondering whether this is an elaborate campaign by the Onion, in which case it’s brilliant,” says William Black, an economics and law professor and a white-collar-crime expert who was an investigator for various federal financial agencies during the S&L scandals of the 1980s. “It’s so Wizard of Oz—just ignore the man behind the curtain.”
Milken’s defenders call such criticism unfair, noting that the museum won’t have exhibits about Milken. “If people didn’t know who Michael Milken was when they walked in, they are not going to know who he is when they walk out,” says Richard Sandler, executive director of the Milken Family Foundation. “But they are going to learn about a lot of people who have made a difference in the world and in America.”
This article initially appeared in the November, 2020 issue of Washingtonian.