Smithsonian Questions $5 Million In Oil Money

By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Smithsonian Institution has taken the rare step of putting on hold a $5 million donation from the American Petroleum Institute after two members of the museum complex's Board of Regents, including a U.S. senator, balked at accepting oil-industry money for a major initiative on the world's oceans.

The longtime chairman of the regents' executive committee, Roger W. Sant, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the six congressional regents, raised objections when the donation appeared on the board's agenda. Sant, a former energy industry executive who has donated millions of dollars to ocean conservation, said he is worried that the oil-and-gas money could taint the showcase "Ocean Initiative," which is scheduled to include a major exhibit hall and a multimedia Web site.

"I have some real concerns about this," Sant said. "I want to be sure that the sponsor's behavior is consistent with the message we're trying to deliver. It is a question mark given the record of oil spills in the past two decades."

Sant is in an unusual position to raise questions about the donation because he is the project's largest benefactor: He and his wife, Victoria, contributed $10 million to projects related to the sea. The money will go to the new $49 million Ocean Hall, a Web site to showcase ocean research, a Sant Chair for Marine Science and related programs. The hall, which will be the largest exhibition space at the National Museum of Natural History, is to open next fall. Sant also serves as chairman of the museum's board.

Sant's term on the Board of Regents expired last week, but he is expected to be reappointed by Congress as early as Monday. He said he may recuse himself when the regents consider the API donation later this month.

A spokeswoman for the petroleum institute, Karen Matusic, said, "The gift is offered in the spirit of encouraging education."

The regents' handling of the matter is in stark contrast to fundraising efforts under Lawrence M. Small, the former investment banker who was ousted as the head of the Smithsonian over his compensation and expense accounts. Small was criticized for going to great lengths to keep big donors happy. Many insiders still resent the decision to remove the name of aviation pioneer Samuel Langley from a National Air and Space Museum theater and rename it after a donor, the Lockheed Martin Corp.

"It is not just that I have this opinion, but there is a heightened level of scrutiny" after a string of revelations about the Smithsonian this year, Sant said. "Let's just be damned sure here, instead of accepting the money."

Sant said that when people think of oil and oceans, they think of spills. "I know the industry has done quite a bit to minimize [spills] in the future," he said. "I think it is in everyone's mind that oceans and oil are not consistent."

The decision to review the gift also marks a setback for Cristi┬┐n Samper, the Smithsonian's acting secretary, who said in a speech last month that the Ocean Initiative is "clearly very close to my heart." Samper, who was director of the Natural History Museum before succeeding Small, signed off on the arrangement.

The petroleum institute, an 84-year-old trade association for more than 400 oil and natural-gas corporations, is eager to improve the industry's image in an era where it is often painted as a villain in the global-warming debate. In past years, the API has given about $200,000 to various parts of the Smithsonian, including the Natural History Museum, the astrophysical observatory and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md.

The API signed the $5 million five-year sponsorship agreement on Aug. 29 pending approval by the Board of Regents. At a meeting on Sept. 17, Sant and Leahy objected to the donation and requested more information. They received a four-page memo, which was delivered in time for a conference call among regents on Oct. 15.

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