Smithsonian Spending

Thursday, March 1, 2007

"MR. SMALL is not going to talk about his own compensation," says the spokeswoman for Smithsonian head Lawrence M. Small. Who can blame him, seeing how he doesn't seem to have to answer to anyone for his spending, no matter how extravagant? The Smithsonian board, which is supposed to oversee the wise use of public dollars, instead defends questionable expenditures by Mr. Small and even changes its rules to excuse his conduct after the fact.

A report by the Smithsonian inspector general questioned nearly $90,000 in unauthorized spending by Mr. Small from 2000 to 2005. Included were charges for private planes, the tab for his wife to go to Cambodia, catered meals and gifts. There was no evidence of fraud or abuse and no denying that many expenditures were related to Smithsonian business. Yet, as The Post's James V. Grimaldi reported, many transactions lacked documentation, violated Smithsonian policies and, in the words of the inspector general, "might be considered lavish or extravagant." The 17-member Board of Regents brushed the findings aside; in instances where the spending ran afoul of policy, the board just changed its rules. It's also disturbing that there were efforts to keep the report secret.

Mr. Small is handsomely compensated (this year's package will be $915,698), so it's both inexplicable and offensive that he found it necessary to push the boundaries of what is allowed. Was it really necessary, for instance, to pay $14,509 to rent a jet for a round trip to San Antonio when commercial flights were available? Most striking was the way Mr. Small interpreted terms of a housing allowance, dispensing with filing monthly documentation and using a "hypothetical" calculation to collect $1.15 million over seven years. Never mind that Mr. Small owns his home free and clear.

As distressing as Mr. Small's actions were, the real problem lies with a board that opted to be more lap dog than watchdog. The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its budget from taxpayers and also relies on tax-exempt donations. It's the board's job to ensure that those resources are not wasted or misused. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been attacking the practices of tax-exempt organizations, is asking whether the Smithsonian's governance system, established in 1846, is outdated. Mr. Grassley might have a point, given that his concerns were directed to a Smithsonian chancellor who also happens to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and presumably has other issues occupying his time.

At least the Smithsonian board knows that it has its work cut out for it in restoring public trust. Roger Sant, chairman of the regents' executive committee, put the word out to Smithsonian staff members that the regents take seriously the issues that have been raised and are determining how best to proceed.

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