Indian Museum Director Spent Lavishly on Travel

Excerpt from an 8 minute DVD biography produced by the Smithsonian for Rick West as a gift for his departure. The DVD cost the Smithsonian over $30,000 to produce. Video by Smithsonian Institution
By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 28, 2007

The founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian spent more than $250,000 in institution funds over the past four years on first-class transportation and plush lodging in hotels around the world, including more than a dozen trips to Paris.

In that time, W. Richard West Jr. was away from Washington traveling for 576 days on trips that included speaking engagements, fundraising and work for other nonprofit groups, according to a review of travel vouchers for West's trips obtained by The Washington Post.

West's travel often took him far from American Indian culture: Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand; Athens; Bali, Indonesia; Sydney and Brisbane; London; Singapore; Florence, Rome and Venice; Paris; Gothenburg, Sweden; Seville, Spain; Seoul; Vienna; and Zagreb, Croatia.

At the time, top Smithsonian officials were allowed unlimited leave with pay. "At all times," West said, "my travel authorizations and reimbursements, and their direct connection to NMAI and Smithsonian business, were reviewed and approved fully by my supervisors.

"There is no point at which these activities were being carried on in anything but an open way and with the approval of the Smithsonian."

Smithsonian officials have been under scrutiny since earlier this year following revelations about spending abuses by then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small. An independent panel sharply criticized Small and Sheila Burke, his top deputy, for taking too much time away from the office.

Small and Burke were West's supervisors. The unlimited-leave policy was changed after the Small scandal. Small resigned in March and Burke left in September.

West said the congressional mandate that established the museum called for him to be a global emissary for the Indian Museum's mission. He said that on occasion the museum was reimbursed for his trips by sponsoring parties.

"Travel was required almost from the get-go," West said in an interview yesterday. He distanced himself from Small and Burke, who both were away for service as corporate directors. "I was not wandering off to corporate board meetings," West said. "I don't sit on any corporate boards. The only boards I sit on are nonprofit."

West has been in charge of museum staff since 1989, when he was hired to oversee planning for the flagship museum. He also supervised the opening of the George Gustav Heye Center in New York five years later and the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland five years after that. In September 2004, West oversaw the opening of the Indian Museum, which covers Native American life and culture from the borders of Canada through South America.

West, a 64-year-old Harvard-trained historian and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, led a campaign to raise $155 million in private funds, which helped pay for the museum's construction and the Suitland facility.

Much of West's travel occurred in conjunction with his service on outside boards. He served as chairman of the board of the American Association of Museums from 1998 to 2000 and is a vice president of the International Council of Museums. He is also a trustee at Stanford University, where he earned a law degree in 1971, and serves on the board at the Ford Foundation.

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