By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
A Washington watchdog group yesterday asked the attorney general to investigate whether Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small violated the law by using federal money to pay for travel and other expenses.
The group also asked the Justice Department to determine whether the Smithsonian Board of Regents, which is chaired by John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the Supreme Court, broke the law by approving Small's expenses.
In a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said the $90,000 in unauthorized expenses that Small accumulated between 2000 and 2005 was "troubling." Questions raised by Smithsonian's inspector general about Small's expenses were first reported by The Washington Post on Sunday.
"Mr. Small's conduct not only diminishes the stature of the Smithsonian Institution, it smacks of self-dealing and self-enrichment at the expense of the general public. The Board of Regents failure to take action against Mr. Small -- incomprehensibly choosing to endorse his conduct instead -- is similarly distressing," said the letter, signed by Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, a former federal prosecutor. The group describes itself as nonpartisan; it has received funding from liberal Democratic sources.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has asked Roberts, chancellor of the Smithsonian Regents, to review what Grassley has called "lavish expenditures" by Small. Grassley said the board appeared to be "rubber-stamping the actions of Secretary Small and turning a blind eye to very serious issues raised by the inspector general." The senator suggested this week that the Smithsonian's budget be cut because of excessive spending and proposed changing the composition of the Board of Regents.
"One idea is whether the upcoming federal budget resolution should limit or redirect Smithsonian funding," Grassley said. "Another idea is introducing legislation to improve governance from the Board of Regents, similar to my legislation on the Red Cross. As far as I can tell, Congress hasn't taken a serious look at the Smithsonian's governing statute in a hundred years."
The Smithsonian, the largest complex of museums in the world, receives 70 percent of its budget from the federal government.
Acting Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan reviewed Small's expenses last month and in a confidential memo to the Regents said that "overall we saw no evidence of fraud or abuse associated with the expense transactions reviewed." However, she added, a number of transactions were "not properly documented or were not in accordance with Smithsonian policies."
After some of Small's expenditures were questioned, the Regents rewrote some of the rules governing him to make sure there were no violations.
Small said last night that he was proud to work with the Regents. "They have obviously come to their conclusions about the various reports that have come out. And I am perfectly comfortable with their conclusions," said Small, after attending a reception Tuesday evening on Capitol Hill for the 10th anniversary of the Smithsonian Latino Center. He said he didn't have any knowledge of the letter to Gonzales.