Smithsonian Termed 'Endangered'; Board's Structure Questioned

By Jacqueline Trescott and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 12, 2007

Members of a Senate oversight committee yesterday recommended a shake-up of the Smithsonian Institution, starting with its governing board, whose members were depicted as out of touch with the management of the 160-year-old museum complex.

Calling the Smithsonian "an endangered institution," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned whether the Board of Regents, which includes Vice President Cheney and Chief Justice John Roberts, is able to oversee the management of the sprawling collection of 18 museums, the National Zoo and a $1.1 billion budget.

"The time has come to examine whether there is a structure that will better serve this institution," said Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which summoned Smithsonian leaders to testify about what she called "serious issues" at the museum complex.

What worked in 1846, the year the Smithsonian was founded, isn't working well in 2007, Feinstein said during the hearing, called in the wake of the resignation of the institution's chief executive, Lawrence M. Small, last month. His departure came amid investigations into spending that an inspector general's report noted "might be considered lavish and extravagant." The regents retroactively approved some of those expenditures. Ranking Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah said Small had "lost track of the public perception of his assignment."

Testimony from the Government Accountability Office revealed that a backlog in maintenance had grown to $2.5 billion while the institution had ignored suggestions on how to fund repairs, and included criticism from the Smithsonian inspector general, who said the regents had been deliberately kept out of the loop about growing problems.

Feinstein obliquely raised questions about the work habits and spending of the Board of Regents, information that has not been released publicly by the institution, saying they had spent $20,000 for a dinner in September 2004, and met only 1 1/2 hours in January.

Roger Sant, a regent and chairman of the executive committee, said that the quarterly meeting in question had lasted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. "Nonetheless, your point is well taken," he said.

The catered dinner was held to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, according to Smithsonian records, with 130 guests, including members of Congress and donors. But Feinstein charged that it reflected a worrisome attitude.

"It's kind of 'we just do as we do,' and I think it's a problem . . . to have a dinner for regents that amounts to $20,000 following a board meeting," she said.

She also questioned whether the board is large enough and professional enough to oversee such a vast operation, which houses an estimated 137 million objects.

The 17-member board consists of the chief justice of the United States, the vice president, six members of Congress and nine other members. Cheney, said Bennett, had never attended a meeting, but Sant countered that Roberts had attended every full meeting and the executive committee sessions.

"But given their day jobs, I wonder if they can dedicate the time, attention and expertise that are so greatly needed at the Smithsonian at this time," Feinstein said. "Comparable museums, like the Met, for example, have five public officials that serve ex officio, but that is in addition to a robust board of 40 that include experts in museum management, fundraising and the law."

"We have clearly heard the concerns of Congress and the public," Sant said. "We sincerely regret the circumstances that have led to a loss of confidence in the spending practices and oversight at the Smithsonian."

A. Sprightley Ryan, the Smithsonian inspector general, painted a picture of a Board of Regents that was unaware of many pertinent details of compensation packages and was deliberately kept in the dark about the institution's problems. She testified that the regents were "not fully aware" of Small's employment agreement, especially his unusual housing allowance. "Without knowing these facts, the regents had no basis for monitoring or questioning the housing allowance payments."

The board is working to improve its management, oversight and communication, said regent Patricia Stonesifer, who chairs a new governance committee and is considering eliminating the secretary's housing allowance, which raised questions on Capitol Hill when The Post reported that Small had received $1.15 million in housing allotments for a $3 million mansion that didn't have a mortgage.

"It seems to me this is one of the areas where you got into trouble," said Bennett.

Included in the challenges facing the Smithsonian is its enormous maintenance backlog, said Mark Goldstein, a director at the GAO. Acting Secretary Cristián Samper said that more than half of the buildings are "past their normal, useful life spans."

Congress provides 70 percent of the Smithsonian's budget, with the funds going to salaries and benefits, as well as upkeep and some construction. Feinstein acknowledged that the president's proposed $44 million for repairs was not enough but criticized the Smithsonian for not raising private money for leaky roofs and cracking foundations. Feinstein told the panel she had no trouble getting corporations to chip in for cable car repairs when she was mayor of San Francisco.

Ryan said that Small "limited and polished" information about the operations of the institution. She said the regents were misled about a multimillion-dollar financial system that was substantially delayed and millions of dollars over budget until an inspector general's report. Ryan also said reports from the Office of Policy and Analysis "were edited to downplay criticism of senior leadership."

Feinstein asked if there was a conflict of interest for Small and Deputy Secretary Sheila P. Burke to hold highly paid seats on the Chubb Group board while the Smithsonian pays the company $500,000 annually for insurance. Samper said Small and Burke had "no direct involvement" in choosing the insurer and had followed procedures.

But Ryan said, "There certainly is an appearance of a conflict of interest to me and we would like to look into that."

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