Was a Museum Director Treated Fairly?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Dec. 28 story about more than $250,000 spent on travel over the last four years of W. Richard West Jr.'s tenure as founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian drew angry responses from West, his friends and museum supporters, who charged that the coverage was unfair and ignored his achievements.

That story and others outlined business-class air travel around the world, including more than a dozen trips to Paris, stays in luxury hotels, expensive meals and limousines, a $48,500 portrait and a $30,000 video made for an expensive farewell party. The travel was for speeches, fundraising and work with other nonprofits and museums. The stories have led to official reviews.

The Post investigation, said reporters James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott, started after several people at the Smithsonian told them that West's travel should be investigated. Sources who have not been named provided copies of travel documents. The two reporters had previously written on the expenses and time away from duties of former Smithsonian secretary Lawrence M. Small and his deputy, Sheila Burke, both of whom resigned.

Smithsonian Inspector General Sprightley Ryan, who is looking at West's expenses, said that Smithsonian employees are to follow the Federal Travel Regulation, but it's "pretty weak. The institution hasn't always been as vigilant it should have been on executive travel."

West said his expenses were authorized by supervisors, including exceptions to the regulation, such as flying business class on some overseas trips and expensive hotels, meals and entertainment. West said he was following regulations but had become "more conservative" recently, cutting limousines and sometimes traveling coach overseas. He said he personally subsidized some of his hotel and meal expenses and used frequent-flier points to upgrade to business or first class. The video was not done at his request, and "in retrospect, I wish we hadn't done" the portrait with museum funds.

Dean Zerbe, counsel to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), also is investigating for the Senate Finance Committee. Grassley and other members of Congress criticized West's travel. Zerbe said, "When you put it all in a package, it is wholly ugly. You don't expect high-ranking public officials to do this. West took advantage to a fare-thee-well."

(Disclosure: I am a charter member of the museum and a contributor. I had not met West until I interviewed him.)

Dozens of Post stories have been written about West and the museum; the vast majority I read were neutral or positive, though the first review of the exhibits was somewhat negative. West was credited with raising $155 million for the building and grounds.

The museum is different from museums that have a scholarly approach. This museum is about Native Americans telling their history the way they wanted it told. During his 17-year tenure, West, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, became an expert on museums and indigenous people, as well as chairman of the board of the American Association of Museums and an officer in the International Council of Museums, based in Paris.

The first Post story said that West was gone from the Washington museum for 576 days on travel from 2003 through 2007. West said he was "Mr. Outside" at the museum and that his deputy was "Mr. Inside," handling day-to-day management.

A Feb. 2 story showed that West's 2007 travel -- 30 trips -- took him out of the office for 180 days at a cost of $105,598, five times more than the average travel costs of any other Smithsonian director. West said that he had planned to leave the museum earlier and had scheduled overseas trips that could not be canceled. West also said, "In some museum circles, we were not accepted, and I felt I had to explain NMAI to the rest of the world."

Museum consultant and author Maureen K. Robinson said that she admires West and that he is a recognized leader nationally and internationally. She thinks that Post coverage of the Smithsonian has been a "pile-on. You look for the worst in every situation."

Harold K. Skramstad Jr., a former museum director and consultant, thought the stories were fair. "It's an extraordinary amount of money to spend. Directors have to travel, but you can spend your entire time . . . at professional meetings. The director has to have self-discipline, plus there must be oversight. Part of the blame can be affixed on Rick West, and part of the burden goes on the governing authority. He is not to be singled out as being different in this regard. There have to be colleagues and oversight that help you work these things out."

West said he received no complaints about his travel, but who likes to confront the boss, especially in the old and discredited Smithsonian culture? While everything West did was authorized and nothing was illegal, that's not the point. It's about what's right at a museum funded by faithful subscribers, Indian tribes and taxpayers' money.

Post coverage overall has been accurate and necessary, though I have two issues. The first story said that West used "first-class transportation." The term was meant to characterize West's travel as a whole, but readers could think that he always flew first class, which he did not. And the stories should have said more prominently that he had become an internationally sought-after expert.

The Smithsonian Institution is a public trust, and it deserves public scrutiny.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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