Former IG Says Small Asked Her To Drop Audit

By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The former Smithsonian inspector general who launched an audit of high-ranking officials and their business practices said yesterday that Secretary Lawrence M. Small tried to pressure her to drop the inquiry shortly after she announced it last year.

Debra S. Ritt said Small called her before the audit was widened to include his own compensation, but she still found it highly inappropriate. Ritt reported to Small at the time.

Ritt resigned in June about a week after broadening the audit -- originally a review of Smithsonian Business Ventures accounting and executive compensation -- to include Small's compensation, which is $915,698 this year. Ritt said in interviews Saturday and yesterday that Small called her to urge investigations of the Smithsonian's construction spending instead of the business unit.

"He called me to tell me he didn't want me to do the audit, that the audit wasn't needed," Ritt said. "He felt the inspector general's office was being manipulated by a few disgruntled employees."

Smithsonian spokeswoman Carolyn Martin said, "The secretary denies pressuring Ms. Ritt on any matter or regarding any inquiry."

Ritt, who resigned two months after announcing the audit, said the shrinking inspector general's budget, which Small controls, hampered the office's effectiveness and independence. "I could see the handwriting on the wall," Ritt said. She now oversees the audit division of the Small Business Administration inspector general's office.

Roger Sant, chairman of the Board of Regents executive committee and the only Smithsonian official to respond in detail to questions about the review, said such a call from Small would have been inappropriate if it occurred. "It would really surprise me," Sant said. "All the time I've been involved, he's been really supportive of the audits."

A. Sprightley Ryan, who had served as Ritt's general counsel, took over the review as an interim inspector general. Later, at the urging of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Ryan began reporting to the Board of Regents rather than Small.

Ryan completed the review of compensation and released two public reports, one of which contained dozens of lines blacked out. She also sent the Board of Regents a separate "confidential" letter that found that Small had charged the institution $90,000 in unauthorized expenditures during his tenure, including chartered jet travel, his wife's trip to Cambodia, hotel rooms, luxury car service, catered staff meals and expensive gifts. Ryan's letter also noted that Small reimbursed the Smithsonian $700 for personal dinners with no institution purpose.

Ryan said Small never called her about the audits. The report on business ventures concluded that the unit's contribution to the Smithsonian is lower, after adjusting for inflation, than the amount Smithsonian businesses contributed in 1999, before Small became secretary.

Grassley raised questions about Small's leadership and spending practices on the floor of the Senate yesterday.

"I believe that the secretary of the Smithsonian has lost the confidence of the American people with his actions -- actions that have been contrary to the public trust he has been given," Grassley said.

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