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Smithsonian's Small Quits in Wake of Inquiry

By Jacqueline Trescott and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, the banker who took over the world's largest museum complex seven years ago, has resigned under pressure following revelations regarding his housing allowance and office and travel expenditures.

Museum officials announced Small's departure yesterday and named Cristián Samper, a biologist who heads the National Museum of Natural History, as acting secretary.

In recent weeks questions about Small's leadership and his personal expenditures had created a crisis at the Smithsonian. Small, 65, had been sharply criticized by members of Congress and his pay and expense accounts have been subjected to scrutiny by the Smithsonian inspector general. Last week, two separate committees were appointed by the regents to look into management operations at the Smithsonian, which includes 18 museums and research facilities as well as the National Zoo.

Roger W. Sant, a member of the institution's Board of Regents and chairman of its executive committee, said Small submitted his resignation Saturday to John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States and chancellor of the regents. The regents held a meeting Sunday evening at the offices of a Pennsylvania Avenue law firm and voted to accept it.

Sant, who said that Small would not receive a severance package, noted that there were "some regrets" among the regents because of his "long and outstanding service." Small's accomplishments, including record fundraising, "were weighed against the current contrary feelings among some people in the community."

Last week, several lawmakers denounced what Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called Small's "Dom Perignon lifestyle." Thursday the full Senate voted to freeze a $17 million increase in the institution's proposed 2008 budget.

The measure, sponsored by Grassley, would have remained in effect until the Smithsonian reformed how business is done in the secretary's office and would have capped salaries for Smithsonian executives at $400,000, the current pay for the president.

"It would be hard to ignore something like that. That has to be one of the factors," Sant said.

Small's letter of resignation said:

"Making the Smithsonian more bureaucratic and political, however, is not, in my view, conducive to sustaining the momentum the Smithsonian enjoys today and, therefore, I'm very troubled about what I see happening.

"I really see no compelling reason for me to continue to lead the Smithsonian and resign from my position effective immediately."

Congressional criticism mounted after articles in The Washington Post detailed $2 million in housing and office expenditures by Small, as well as $90,000 in unauthorized expenses.

Support for Small and the Smithsonian had been dwindling on Capitol Hill.

Smithsonian officials had hoped Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, might speak against Grassley's amendment on technical grounds. But at the last minute last week, she sided with Small's critics. Yesterday she said: "It is my hope that Secretary Small's resignation will help clear the air at the Smithsonian and help lead to a new era of accountability at one of our nation's premier institutions. I believe that his compensation package -- totaling $915,698 in 2007 -- was seriously flawed and the oversight of his spending practices lacking."

In light of the resignation, Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, will ask budget conferees to remove the amendment from the budget resolution, one of his staffers said.

Small faced at least three potentially contentious hearings on Capitol Hill, where he was expected to be closely questioned over his spending and management.

In his letter, Small said: "Having spent countless days and evenings promoting the interest of the institution and having contributed over a half a million dollars of my own money as well, it has truly been a labor of love." Small was not present for the announcement at the landmark Smithsonian Castle.

Sant said that Small raised more money for the Smithsonian in his seven-year tenure than had been raised in the previous history of the 161-year-old institution. Under Small's watch, the Smithsonian opened two new museums -- the National Museum of the American Indian and the Dulles Airport annex of the Air and Space Museum. Sant said yesterday that although those plans were on the drawing board when Small arrived, he raised most of the money for their realization. Small also presided over the $200 million renovation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which are in the historic Old Patent Office Building. Small made "a very serious contribution to an institution that had needs when he stepped in," Sant said.

Small, the first Smithsonian secretary who was not a scientist or an academic, brought a corporate mentality to an institution that long resembled a university campus. The result was a culture clash, with Small pushing to rename facilities after wealthy donors, for example. That offended longtime Smithsonian researchers who thought he was compromising the institution's values.

Publicly campaigning to repair what he called "shabby" buildings, Small led fundraising efforts for major improvements at the Museum of American History and the Museum of Natural History, as well as many new exhibits at the National Zoo, including the panda habitat. Small, who said the public told him the first priority was getting giant pandas back to the zoo, worked out an agreement to lease the animals from China, and two years ago the pandas produced a crowd-pleasing cub, Tai Shan.

Small's spending was the subject of intense public scrutiny after The Post published details last month of a confidential inspector general's report examining his $2 million in housing and office expenses over the past six years.

The Post reported in February that Small accumulated unauthorized expenses from 2000 to 2005, including charges for chartered jet travel, his wife's trip to Cambodia, hotel rooms, luxury car service, catered staff meals and expensive gifts, according to confidential findings by the Smithsonian inspector general.

Last week the Post reported that Small spent nearly $160,000 on the redecoration of his offices in the institution's main building on the Mall shortly after he took the helm. The expenses include $4,000 for two chairs from the English furniture maker George Smith, $13,000 for a custom-built conference table and $31,000 for Berkeley striped upholstery.

Small has also received $1.15 million in housing allowances over a six-year period in return for agreeing to use his 6,500-square-foot home in Woodley Park for Smithsonian functions. To justify those expenses, Small submitted receipts for $152,000 in utility bills, $273,000 in housekeeping services and $203,000 in maintenance charges, including $2,535 to clean a chandelier. The home-repair invoices show $12,000 for upkeep and service on his backyard swimming pool, including $4,000 to replace the lap pool's heater and water pump.

Controversy was a frequent feature of his tenure. In 2004, Small was convicted in federal court of purchasing the feathers of endangered birds. A Post investigation into animal care and deaths at the National Zoo brought reprimands from a leading science group and dismissal of the zoo director, who was handpicked by Small. Early in his tenure Small angered scientists over proposed changes in research across the institution. He eventually backed down.

Last year he upset historians and filmmakers seeking access to institution archives when he signed a semi-exclusive deal with Showtime to mine the Smithsonian's resources for a documentary film channel.

A native New Yorker and graduate of Brown University, Small had a 35-year career in banking and corporate management, including 27 years at Citicorp and eight years as president of Fannie Mae. A tall, imposing man who speaks fluent Spanish, Small is a passionate flamenco guitarist and avid collector of Latin American art.

Last year, a federal investigation into Fannie Mae's business practices found that Small was prominent among executives there who encouraged employees to hit profit targets so that managers, including himself, would receive larger annual bonuses. Regulators say Small advocated tactics that violated generally accepted accounting rules and misled investors.

Despite his troubles, Small never received any public admonishment from the Smithsonian board. Regents boosted his salary from $333,000 in 2000 to $884,733 in 2006. The Smithsonian is both a nonprofit organization under tax laws and a creation of Congress that receives federal appropriations -- last year it got $621 million.

Sant said the most important consideration for Small and the regents was the well-being of the Smithsonian. "I think he was really concerned about the possibility of the institution being changed fundamentally," Sant said. "Ultimately we felt the institution has to come first."

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