By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
A top Smithsonian official has resigned after he destroyed records from a key Smithsonian Board of Regents meeting.
James M. Hobbins, 64, executive assistant to the secretary of the Smithsonian, has acknowledged destroying transcripts from a meeting in January when regents discussed then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small's compensation, housing allowance and travel expenses among other things, according to people who insisted on remaining anonymous because of the sensitivity of the case.
The sources said the documents were destroyed after Smithsonian General Counsel John Huerta sent a memo to employees in March to retain documents. The directive came after the Senate Finance Committee began investigating the Smithsonian in early February and an independent review committee established by the regents later that month specifically requested the minutes and other records from meetings.
"I can't comment on this particular case," Huerta said, "but copies have been preserved. A complete set was provided to the independent review committee" that investigated alleged abuses at the institution.
Hobbins declined requests for an interview. His attorney, Thomas Sawyer, said the transcripts were "transitional documents. They were intended for the purpose of assisting in the preparation of minutes of the board meeting.
"Jim regrets the current situation with respect to the Smithsonian," Sawyer said. "That's why he voluntarily stepped down after 40 years, and his deep personal commitment to the institution will continue. He's resigned because he is putting the interests of the Smithsonian first." The transcript of the January meeting included discussion about how to respond to a confidential report from the Smithsonian Inspector General's Office that Small had run up nearly $90,000 in unauthorized expenses from 2000 to 2005, minutes obtained by The Post show.
At the meeting, the regents retroactively approved spending for Small's air travel, car service, gifts and his wife's unauthorized trip to Cambodia. The regents also retroactively approved an unauthorized bonus Small had awarded to Hobbins.
Sawyer said it was standard procedure for Hobbins to destroy the transcripts after minutes of the meeting were compiled. "This is a practice that has been regularly followed since the middle 1980s."
A court reporter's service has been used over the years to transcribe regents' meetings. The transcripts were used to compile the minutes. Neither the minutes nor the transcripts are made public.
Smithsonian officials said they would not discuss personnel matters. Officials who asked not to be named said that because of his years of service, Hobbins was permitted to retire.
"Jim Hobbins is a great guy -- as dedicated to the Smithsonian as anyone I've ever met," said Roger Sant, chairman of the regents' executive committee. "His record over 40 years was filled with acts of complete devotion to the institution and the people he served. He never shunned a task, regardless of the time of day or his personal circumstances. He loved the place and we already miss him greatly."
Destroying documents requested by congressional investigators could be a crime, depending on the circumstances, but Huerta and Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan declined to say whether the matter was being investigated.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who initiated the Senate Finance Committee's investigation, said, "It's hard to see how someone could have destroyed records after getting explicit instructions to preserve them for a congressional investigation. That makes you think there was something to hide. I intend to get a full explanation from the Smithsonian about why this happened, whether the Smithsonian handled it adequately, and whether it merits external review. I also want assurances that it won't happen again."
Minutes from the January meeting, obtained by The Post earlier this year, include three pages summarizing the executive committee's report on compensation of senior executives and changes made to Small's employment agreement but do not include comments from regents. The minutes are labeled "for administrative purposes only."
Hobbins played a key role at the Smithsonian. He was the primary liaison between the Smithsonian secretary and the Board of Regents, the body established by Congress to oversee what has become the world's largest museum complex. Federal funds and grants provide about three-quarters of the Smithsonian's $1 billion budget.
Hobbins shepherded many aspects of Small's employment through the bureaucracy. Many of those actions were sternly criticized by the independent review committee. In 1999, he drafted Small's initial employment agreement after the former Fannie Mae banker was selected to be the institution's 11th secretary. In 2000 and 2001, Hobbins gave Small signed, blanket travel authorizations, filling in the spot for "traveler's supervisor." Hobbins also was the official who was notified by Small in 2000 that a hypothetical mortgage payment would be used to collect a $150,000-a-year housing allowance. (Small had no mortgage payments because he owned his house outright.)
After the inspector general began her review, Hobbins was one of the officials in the secretary's office who said that Small had the right to waive any policy that applied to the secretary. Ryan and the independent panel found no authority for Small to do so.
Hired as a historian in 1967, Hobbins worked as assistant to the secretary for S. Dillon Ripley, Robert McCormick Adams, I. Michael Heyman and Small. He also briefly worked for acting Secretary Cristián Samper, who announced Hobbins's retirement in an e-mail to employees two weeks ago.
Hobbins was known for his loyalty to the office of the Smithsonian secretary, and the secretaries frequently acknowledged his dedication. In 1999, Heyman gave him an award with a citation that read, "Jim Hobbins has served the Smithsonian with enormous dedication, discretion, fair-mindedness and good will, acting as the Secretary's chief advisor, confidant, and institutional memory."
The inspector general's review found the unauthorized $4,800 bonus that Small gave Hobbins six months into Small's tenure. Ryan said the bonus did not qualify under Smithsonian policy for either "cash awards for sustained superior performance" or "special acts or services." At the January meeting, the regents found that the bonus, "while technically unauthorized, was justified."
Hobbins's salary under Small increased from about $138,000 in 2000 to $190,000 in 2006, a 38 percent increase over seven years. The inspector general's report on compensation said that the base pay for a Cabinet secretary in 2006 was $183,500.
Hobbins was instrumental in selecting Small, according to the independent review committee. Hobbins supported "a very small group of regents" in recruiting and hiring Small. "The record shows the agreement was drafted by Mr. Hobbins (who is not a lawyer), and provided to the General Counsel [Huerta] and other lawyers in the General Counsel's office before it was finalized, but after the terms had been worked out with Mr. Small," the independent panel said.
The review panel called the agreement "inadequate at best, with key terms and provisions both vague and internally contradictory."
Early this year, Huerta proposed changes to Small's contract to make clear that the housing allowance was additional income. Small replied that the negotiations were to be with Huerta and Hobbins only -- and that Sant was not to be notified.
"I do not want any of my comments passed along to Roger," Small told Hobbins and Huerta in an e-mail. "This is strictly a discussion that you, Jim and I are having."