Senators Push Smithsonian To Quickly Hire New Leaders

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Senate panel, while saying the Smithsonian Institution has made substantial progress in putting its house in order, urged its leaders yesterday to speed up key appointments, especially that of a permanent secretary.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, was puzzled that choosing a new chief executive to replace Lawrence M. Small, who resigned in March, would take as long as a year. She questioned why the Smithsonian's Board of Regents had given itself until September to set a compensation package, and then complete work on finding a replacement.

The current crisis at the Smithsonian, Feinstein said, includes "an absence of top-level leadership in the number one and number two positions, as well as the Business Ventures. It is my view that if these are not filled in the next six months, this represents significant jeopardy to the institution. I have a hard time understanding why it can't be. I would be prepared now to write down a salary."

Roger W. Sant, the chairman of the regents' executive committee, disagreed, saying the best searches take from six months to a year. "I think the choice of a new secretary is maybe the most important work the regents do in the next couple of years. It is the most important job we have to do right now. We need to take the time to do it right," he told the senators.

"We owe it to our staff, we owe it to Congress, we owe it to the public, we owe it to our donors to make sure we scour the countryside for the best person."

Charles A. Bowsher, who chairs an independent review commission that last week released a sharply critical 107-page report on the Smithsonian operations and management, agreed that the regents had to make the right choices. "I think sometimes moving too fast gets you the wrong person," Bowsher said, adding, "They should move forward."

Feinstein said, "It seems to me anyone who is interested would make themselves known to the proper authority."

Small, the secretary since 2000, resigned after questions were raised about his expenditures, including a $1.1 million housing allowance and $90,000 in unauthorized expenses. To replace him, the regents formed a search committee, led by regent Alan G. Spoon, and hired Isaacson, Miller, a Boston-based search firm.

While Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), the ranking minority member, did not dispute the benefits of an exacting search, he agreed with Feinstein that the process could be quicker. The vacancy at the top, he said, "creates an additional burden" on Cristián Samper, the acting secretary.

At the hearing Samper reported that administrative changes were already underway. Last week Sheila P. Burke, the deputy secretary, resigned but Samper asked her to stay until the fall for a smooth transition. Her portfolio was too broad, he said yesterday, and he plans to divide the job into two areas -- programming and administration.

Bennett also pushed for a rapid replacement of Gary Beer, the president of Smithsonian Business Ventures, the for-profit division that is currently being investigated by the Smithsonian inspector general. Beer has announced that he, too, is leaving in the fall. Describing SBV as an "immediate problem," Bennett said overhauling the unit requires more than a change at the top.

"The culture of that particular entity was hermetically sealed from the rest of the Smithsonian," Bennett said. The executive position that oversees publishing, retail and marketing "may be more difficult to fill" than Small's post, he said, and should be taken as seriously as the other recruiting. "This is one position that shouldn't take a year," said Bennett.

Samper said he was forming a task force to examine the full workings of SBV and was already reviewing candidates for the executive job.

Feinstein criticized the tardiness of the inspector general's report on the business unit. Findings were expected weeks ago. Sant said the regents had seen a draft and decided it was incomplete; they wanted answers about tax consequences of Beer's expense accounts. The report, he said, "is certainly not good news. There are certainly violations of travel policy."

In a statement before he submitted his resignation, Beer defended his travel expenses as justified.

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