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Indian Museum Director Spent Lavishly on Travel

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.

Both Stanford and Ford pay for board members' travel, but West said he billed the Smithsonian for parts of some of those trips because he worked on museum business while traveling.

"Rick was rarely at the museum," said Ann Ruttle, a financial specialist at the museum from 2003 to 2006, and prior to that at the Smithsonian's main offices, where she worked extensively with institutional travel records. "I believe Rick had the most travel of any museum director."

Ruttle said she prepared a report for her superiors in 2002 showing that the Indian Museum had the most travel of any of the Smithsonian's 18 museums. She said West's extensive travel was well known throughout the institution. "I thought his travel would wane once the museum opened, but it didn't," Ruttle said.

West traveled more frequently than Small or Burke. Small was absent 403 days in the past decade and Burke 546 days in the past six years.

West, who recently retired, remains on the payroll until the end of the year. He is on the search committee interviewing candidates to replace Small.

More than two dozen of West's trips included multiple stops. One 23-day trip costing more than $18,000 began in February and stretched into March and included stops in the American Southwest, Australia, New Zealand and Paris.

While some trips had only a peripheral connection to his museum duties, others were in line with Smithsonian business. He traveled to Oklahoma and Florida for memorial services for a former board member and the funeral of the Smithsonian official who ran the museum's fundraising campaign. He visited Opera Omaha and the American Indian Center of Chicago to discuss collaborations, and made trips to visit tribes in Kansas and Montana.

Many of his four dozen trips to New York, for example, were attributed to business related to the Indian Museum's galleries at the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan.

Expenses for the New York trips often ran more than $1,000 a night. On one occasion last year he stayed in a $559-a-night room at the W Hotel, and on another he billed the Smithsonian for a $286 meal with filmmaker and photographer Gwendolen Cates during which most of the tab went for alcoholic beverages, including a $75 bottle of Italian wine, a 1997 Barbaresco. West said Cates was an extraordinary filmmaker who premiered a movie about a Native American ballet dancer at the museum.

Other travel authorization forms cited vague reasons. For example, the purpose given for a 15-day, $19,878 trip last year to Athens, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Peru was "speeches or presentations."

Also last year, West charged the Smithsonian $6,000 for travel over 33 days from Eugene, Ore., to various destinations, including Albuquerque, New York and San Diego. West's voucher said the purpose of the travel was for "speeches, conferences, teaching." At the time of the trip, West was on a month-long appointment as a visiting chair of law at the University of Oregon. But he remained on the Smithsonian payroll because -- like Small, Burke and other Smithsonian museum directors -- West was allowed unlimited leave with pay.

A University of Oregon spokeswoman said it also paid West: $27,765 in salary for the month and about $4,000 for travel, including a separate check of $265 to the Smithsonian for part of his flight to Eugene.

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said West kept up with his Smithsonian duties while he was in Oregon. "During this month," St. Thomas said, "he talked to his museum staff daily and kept up with e-mails and cellphone calls."

St. Thomas said West did not charge the Smithsonian for his initial flight to Oregon and his final trip home.

The Post's review showed that West often charged for trips to New Mexico, where he has said he might move during his retirement.

One excursion to Santa Fe in 2005 included a six-day stopover in Park City, Utah, to attend the Sundance Film Festival, where West dined with Sundance's founder, actor Robert Redford. West and his wife, Mary Beth, billed the Smithsonian $440 per night for lodging during the Sundance trip.

All the trips were authorized by Burke, the institution's chief operating officer, according to St. Thomas, who said she spoke with Burke yesterday. Burke did not return phone calls seeking comment.

West's total compensation as of 2004 was $292,000 a year, according to the institution's tax returns. West's former law partner and longtime friend Kevin Gover, a former Clinton administration appointee, took over as head of the museum on Dec. 3 after West supported his appointment.

"I am grateful," West said, "for at least the past year to have been the highest-paid director of a museum in the Smithsonian. Even at that status I have yet to earn even two-thirds of what I earned as a private attorney in my last year" in private practice.

Stepped-Up Scrutiny

The disclosures about West's travel have come in a year in which Congress and its investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, have criticized the Smithsonian for permitting a $2.5 billion backlog of physical-plant projects to accumulate, including leaks in the museum's Suitland facility.

Although West's spending continued even after Congress this year stepped up oversight of the Smithsonian, e-mails obtained by The Post show that West and his staff became increasingly wary about how his spending would be perceived if it was made public.

After Small resigned, West and others inside the Smithsonian became more sensitive to the "appropriate concern that recently has been expressed by the Congress over the handling of expenses by the Smithsonian," according to a memo from West to the Smithsonian's general counsel.

An authorized $20,000 West trip to Zagreb was canceled, according to Smithsonian records. West said the trip went forward but was paid for by the State Department. Also, West said some months ago he ceased using chauffeured cars, saying their use "was not appropriate from an appearances standpoint."

West's past trips show a pattern of Smithsonian-paid travel near Palo Alto, Calif., where he served on the Stanford board. He made seven trips to Palo Alto and five to nearby San Francisco -- often stopovers during extensive trips, sometimes overseas. One reason given for one of the California trips, for example, was "donor meetings."

Four of West's most expensive Smithsonian-paid trips were to Venice. The only reason he gave for the first trip in 2003 was to "Attend Development Meeting in Venice." In the interview, West said the purpose was to prepare an entry for the Venice Biennale, an international art show. The $5,200 trip included $2,000 for four nights at the Hotel Londra Palace near St. Mark's Square.

West's travel voucher includes an explanation for the steep cost of the lodging: "Hotel reservation was lost due to hotel error. Traveler had to move to best available hotel, hence additional costs." West said the room provided him with a large enough space to hold a reception, thus saving him the cost of renting a banquet room.

West again traveled to Venice in 2005, leading a party of Indian Museum officials to the Biennale. The museum sponsored an exhibit at the show by Native American artist James A. Luna. In addition to picking up the $13,000 cost for West, the museum also paid $20,000 for at least three other museum officials, including board chairman Dwight Gourneau and his granddaughter. "We wanted one of our trustees to see what it was all about," West said.

Entering the show was part of the museum's strategic plan. "We got all kinds of important press," West said. "I think you actually get far more bang for your buck" from entering an international art show than from putting on a program at the Indian Museum on the Mall.

At least 10 of West's 26 Smithsonian-paid international trips were to attend meetings of the International Council of Museums, records show. The group, which is affiliated with UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- is headquartered in Paris and has members from 140 countries.

In February 2005, West went to an ICOM meeting in Paris, where he spent $580 on limousine service. The Smithsonian-paid $12,700 trip continued on to Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia, where West indicated he went for a Ford Foundation meeting, and then on to Singapore.

West said the purpose of the Jakarta meeting was to help the Indonesian Cultural Ministry find funding for arts programs from groups such as the Ford Foundation.

Last year, in a Post interview, West said he is considering buying land on Bali and would love to live there part of the time. "I love being in context, where it is culturally rich," West said. After that first trip to Bali, he began to travel more frequently to the region, particularly to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

In June 2005, West went to Canberra, Australia, as part of his four-nation journey that included stops in Athens, Singapore, and Lima and Cuzco, Peru. The reason cited for the latter trip, which cost the Smithsonian about $20,000, was "Speech or presentation: Travel to Athens and Singapore for meetings with ICOM chiefs, travel to Canberra, Australia, and Lima/Cuzco, Peru for speeches."

Officials with ICOM and the American Association of Museums said the groups do not reimburse for trips. "The institution is a membership association," said Alissandra Cummins, president of ICOM. "It is voluntary. The general rule is the members, when they are seeking election, the responsibility to attend the meetings is their responsibility."

Edward Able Jr., former president of AAM, said West was "in great demand by the international museums" on how to preserve and present the cultures of indigenous peoples.

An independent review committee, formed after Small resigned, recommended that top officials of the Smithsonian should get approval from the regents for "any outside activities, including service on any other professional service boards and teaching and lecturing obligations, weighing carefully the time commitments needed and the benefits to the Smithsonian." The committee also suggested that any compensation received "should not be kept by the individual, but should be turned over to the Smithsonian for the benefit of the Institution."

Beginning in October, the Smithsonian rescinded the unlimited-leave policy and then provided the managers accumulated leave. West got 23 days of leave, which he is taking this month.

In 2005, West attended the ICOM meeting in Vienna, and then went to Paris for an unspecified purpose. One trip, costing more than $16,000, was a 2006 journey to Rome, Paris and Palo Alto for "AAM/ICOM/Stanford."

The Cost of Farewell

Late this year, a series of Smithsonian-sponsored farewell events were held to honor West, including staff lunches in Washington and New York, cocktail receptions in Washington and Los Angeles and a gala dinner at the Indian Museum in September on the third anniversary of its opening. The total cost: $124,000, according to figures provided by the Smithsonian. St. Thomas said about $50,000 was raised to defray those costs.

"It is totally appropriate to thank somebody for public service," said Roger Sant, chairman of the Smithsonian regents' executive committee, adding that he was unaware of how the dinner was funded. "We are trying to watch our expenditures."

The costs raised some qualms inside the Smithsonian, according to sources and e-mails, including those between West and his assistant, Alena Chalan. One of those concerned was Angela Leipold, the museum's assistant director for external affairs.

"Angela is worried about perceptions, given recent SI events," Chalan wrote in an e-mail to West. Leipold recommended West use institution "trust funds," rather than the institution's federally appropriated funds, to avoid causing embarrassment. The trust funds consist of the institution's privately raised money. Smithsonian rules permit the funds to be used with less restrictions. But the independent review committee issued a report that criticized the use of trust funds for lavish parties and travel.

Smithsonian policy permits use of trust funds for farewell parties but "approval must be requested by the director of the organization through the under secretary/dir to the Executive Assistant to the Secretary," according to an e-mail sent from Burke's office to Leipold. All of these events were approved by officials at Smithsonian headquarters.

For West's gala dinner, the trust funds paid for the $37,000 catering bill, which included medallions of prime beef tenderloin seasoned with habanero chiles, and quail glazed with wild plum jam. Federally appropriated funds, however, were used to pay $30,585 for an eight-minute DVD biography of West, which was shown during the dinner and presented to him as a going-away present.

Chalan was apologetic in the e-mail to West and noted that Leipold was only trying to protect West from embarrassment: "Please note, that she is only trying to keep your life Washington Post free for your last two months. *smile*"

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