Smithsonian Official Resigned In Wake of Ethics Probe

Pilar O'Leary, seen on the cover of Washington Life, kept a high social profile during her Smithsonian tenure.
Pilar O'Leary, seen on the cover of Washington Life, kept a high social profile during her Smithsonian tenure. (Washington Life - Washington Life)
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By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The head of the Smithsonian Latino Center resigned in February after an internal investigation found that she violated a variety of rules and ethics policies by abusing her expense account, trying to steer a contract to a friend and soliciting free tickets for fashion shows, concerts and music award ceremonies, according to records released yesterday by the Smithsonian.

Pilar O'Leary, who was hired in 2005 by then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small to be the institution's key representative on Latino affairs, billed the Smithsonian "extravagant" and "lavish travel expenses," and used her expense account on personal purchases such as outings to a spa and hotel gift shops, the Smithsonian inspector general found.

In a report released yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Washington Post, Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan said O'Leary violated 14 ethical and conflict-of-interest policies. Many details were unclear because long passages were blacked out by Ryan for privacy reasons. "The investigation revealed that O'Leary has not always acted in the best interests of the Smithsonian," the report concluded. "Her conduct has violated the basic ethical rules of the Institution."

O'Leary, 39, denied any wrongdoing, saying in an e-mail to The Post that the tickets were "not gifts" and that her travel had been approved by her supervisors in the office of then-Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke. In an interview with investigators made public with the report, O'Leary said she had never been questioned by superiors regarding her travel expenditures.

Prominent in the Washington social scene, O'Leary appeared on the cover of Washington Life magazine two years ago as a winner of the magazine's annual Substance & Style Awards, along with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and environmentalist Philippe Cousteau.

The Latino center that O'Leary oversaw was established in 1997 to coordinate exhibitions and programs related to Hispanic culture and history. The Latino center receives a separate appropriation of about $1 million a year. O'Leary, an attorney who previously worked at Fannie Mae, was paid about $200,000 a year in 2005 and 2006; the money came from a separate budget, not the federal appropriation. The Smithsonian development office reported that the Latino center received $1.8 million in contributions during O'Leary's tenure. In a declaration attached to the report, O'Leary said the center had raised $4 million in the same period.

The inspector general found that O'Leary solicited and accepted gifts and gratuities from outside companies and contractors doing business with or seeking to do business with the Smithsonian and who had interests that could be affected by O'Leary's official duties. "Her conduct creates the perception that she is using her position for private gain, particularly through her solicitation of gifts and her excessive travel expenditures," said the report, which was written before her resignation.

O'Leary said in her e-mail, "All of my travel was authorized by my supervisor's office."

Two contracts O'Leary advocated, including one with a friend that was not the result of competitive bidding, were determined to be improper by Smithsonian Office of Contracting. When confronted over one of the contracts, O'Leary "acted surprised that she couldn't do it." According to an e-mail she sent later to the contractor, O'Leary was "threatened and embarrassed" when she was told that the deal was "illegal."

O'Leary was found to have rented limousines frequently, including one that took the Latino center's board members from the Smithsonian Castle to the National Museum of Natural History. She also sent couriers to fetch items at her home, including wine, medication, a suitcase, a dress, keys and her BlackBerry. O'Leary said in her interview that the costs were justified for business purposes.

Many of the violations came in 2007 after Small was forced to step down for expense account abuses. He resigned after questions were raised about his expense accounts, including the use of limousines. There has been a series of reports in the past year about other ethical lapses at the institution.

The report was completed Nov. 28. The inspector general's office referred the O'Leary matter to the U.S. attorney's office, which declined to prosecute.

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