By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Lawrence M. Small, the secretary of the Smithsonian and an avid collector of Brazilian tribal art, is expected to plead guilty later this week to a misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The charge was filed Jan. 5 in Raleigh, N.C., after Small's art collection was found to contain feathers from several protected species, including the jabiru, roseate spoonbill and crested caracara.
Neither prosecutors nor Small's lawyers would go into details yesterday about the investigation or the bargaining leading up to the arraignment, which is scheduled for Friday morning. Papers filed in U.S. District Court in Raleigh state that Small "did possess, transport, cause to be transported, purchase, offer to purchase, carry and cause to be carried, migratory birds and parts thereof."
A statement released yesterday by the Smithsonian said: "Under the circumstances, while Secretary Small will plead guilty to the one-count, non-intentional misdemeanor violation, the U.S. Attorney in this case is not recommending any fine or incarceration." How the case ended up in Raleigh and the usual penalties for such a violation were not explained.
Three members of the Smithsonian board said they don't expect the case to affect Small's status as head of the Smithsonian, the largest complex of museums in the world. The private collection in question was purchased before he became Smithsonian secretary.
"The Board of Regents understands that Secretary Small has cooperated fully with the investigation leading up to today's filing, that he has voluntarily surrendered his entire featherwork collection to the government, that the offense in question does not involve criminal intent, that before being purchased by Mr. Small the collection had been on public display at two highly respected institutions, and that in purchasing the collection Mr. Small acted in accordance with the advice of counsel," said the statement, which was released by the Smithsonian's executive committee. The committee is led by Wesley S. Williams Jr., a Washington attorney; Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the regents' chancellor; and businessman Alan G. Spoon.
Small started buying tribal art long before his appointment to the Smithsonian's highest office four years ago, and his holdings were greatly expanded by his purchase in 1998 of a 1,000-item collection. Small displayed the art in his Northwest Washington home, as well as in a 2,500-square-foot private gallery in an apartment near his house.
An article in Smithsonian magazine in January 2000 described the collection as amazing. "There are headdresses, capes, masks, nosepieces, labrets and armbands, all festooned with feathers of every conceivable color and size, from foot-long macaw feathers to fingernail-size hummingbird feathers. The combinations of colors dazzle the eye wherever you look," the article observed.
Small has said that lawyers checked the legality of the items when he purchased them. "My lawyers wrote up a contract which had the seller warrant that all of the articles in the collection were fine from the standpoint of all legalities, including the Endangered Species Act," he told a reporter for the Hearst newspapers in 2001.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducted two investigations of Small's collection, trying to determine whether any items were imported in violation of U.S. or international endangered species laws. The first, from November 2000 to March 2001, ended without any action being taken. The agency reopened the case in July 2001 when questions were raised based on photographs in Smithsonian magazine and correspondence from ornithologists.
The action by the U.S. attorney was an outgrowth of the government's investigation, but a spokesman for Fish & Wildlife said he couldn't provide any details until the court proceedings were concluded.
Small, the former president of Fannie Mae, became Smithsonian secretary in January 2000. His tenure has been marked by many controversies, starting with his appointment as the first businessman to run the center since the first building opened in 1855. Some of his decisions led to congressional and public debate about the role of a modern museum, the privileges accorded to donors and the direction of the Smithsonian itself. The bulk of the institution's budget is provided by the federal government; Congress appropriated $600 million for this fiscal year, an increase, at a time when the Smithsonian has reported that its private donations had decreased.
Small has survived several protests. In an effort to examine the scientific basis of the research facilities, Small proposed closing a facility that worked with endangered species, a move that was withdrawn. The multimillion-dollar gift of a local businesswoman, Catherine B. Reynolds, prompted questions about the role of a donor in developing exhibitions, and eventually Reynolds took back most of her gift. The National Zoo, part of the Smithsonian, is undergoing review by outside panels focusing on animal care and other conditions after the deaths of several prized animals.
Yesterday's regents' statement about the federal inquiry of Small's collection concluded: "The Executive Committee of the Board of Regents believes that it is fully informed with regard to these matters." The board said it had received periodic updates about the case. "Furthermore, the Executive Committee is of the view that, under the circumstances as described, this matter has not impaired, is not now impairing, and will not hereafter impair the Secretary's ability to continue serving the Smithsonian Institution in the excellent manner in which he has performed over the past four years."