By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Travel and other spending by the Smithsonian's former American Indian Museum director was imprudent and at times "lavish," but most of it conformed with institution rules, the Smithsonian inspector general said in a report distributed to Congress yesterday.
W. Richard West Jr., who retired last year as founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, has agreed to reimburse the Smithsonian $9,700 for payments that he should not have received, said Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan. Other expenses might have to be reported to the Internal Revenue Service as income on his tax returns.
"It is regrettable that Mr. West's expenditures were not more in keeping with the prudence demanded of a nonprofit leader and, more importantly, that the Institution, because of its anemic oversight, permitted these types of expenditures and errors," Ryan said.
In a statement, West said he will reimburse the funds. "I accept the [inspector general's] conclusion that I should have exercised better judgment," West said. "I regret not having done so and apologize for the damage the spotlight on such issues has caused to the NMAI, the institution I love and to which I gave 17 years of my life."
The report was requested by members of Congress after The Washington Post reported in December that West spent more than $250,000 in institution funds over the previous four years on premium transportation and plush lodging in hotels around the world, including more than a dozen trips to Paris.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who requested the report, said in a statement that the Smithsonian governing board should consider demanding additional reimbursements from West. "Mr. West seemed to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He traveled the world, stayed in fine hotels, personally kept honoraria even when he was speaking on Smithsonian business, and accepted and helped to arrange an elaborate send-off for himself," Grassley said.
Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, who took office in July, said in a statement yesterday that he would ensure that "the excesses identified in the Inspector General's report never occur again."
Ryan's report confirmed many of The Post's findings, saying, "Mr. West was the most prodigious traveler at the Institution." A review released in February by the acting head of the Smithsonian also determined that West was away from the office more days in 2007 than any other of the institution's museum directors.
Top Smithsonian officials have repeatedly said that the institution's spending excesses were corrected with reforms in early 2007 following the resignation of then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small after concerns were raised about his salary, housing allowance and certain expenditures. But Ryan said, "While oversight became more substantial . . . in early 2007, we observed no significant changes in the manner of Mr. West's travel or in the oversight of his travel throughout 2007."
The inspector general's report said that West's travel "was an essential part of his duties and did advance the Smithsonian mission," particularly for fundraising and elevating the profile of the institution. However, the report added, "Mr. West should have exercised better judgment in spending [the museum's] limited resources when it came to his travel and other expenses."
West's expense reports contained improper reimbursements, including more than $6,000 in receipts for seven trips in which West was paid twice for the same travel and $869 for a hotel bill that was never incurred, according to the report. West charged the Smithsonian nearly $6,000 for a trip to Vienna while separately being reimbursed nearly $1,000 for the same trip from a cultural research center in Germany.
Sixty percent of West's travel in 2006-07 lacked adequate documentation, meaning that he provided receipts but did not submit the names of people he entertained or the business purpose with the voucher. The report found "an appearance of lavish entertainment expenses and premium travel," in which West stayed, for example, in four- and five-star hotels in Venice, Vienna, Paris and Florence.
"Meaningful oversight" was lacking, Ryan said. "Approving officials rarely, if ever, reviewed receipts to justify expenses."
West reported to Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke, who left the institution last year after an investigation criticized her and Small for taking too much time away from the office.
The report found international travel mixed business with personal vacations. A major consideration in the timing of two Smithsonian-sponsored trips, one to Australia in 2006 and another to New Zealand in 2007, was to get a paid personal vacation, the report determined. "The complexity of Mr. West's travel -- which often combined official Smithsonian business, non-Smithsonian professional activities, and personal travel -- required special scrutiny."
The report questioned a Smithsonian policy that let West collect $68,500 in honorariums for giving 24 speeches, and $27,766 for serving as a guest law professor. Ryan said the speeches had "significant content related to Mr. West's responsibilities at the Institution."
Investigators were unable to confirm a statement by Smithsonian official Elizabeth Duggal Taghipour that donors had helped pay for West's $48,500 oil portrait, the only one of its kind for a Smithsonian museum director. However, $15,000 was raised from West's former law firm, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, to cover most of the costs of a portrait-unveiling dinner. The Smithsonian covered about $2,000 of the dinner's cost.
A similar mix of fundraising and spending was found with farewell parties and an eight-minute DVD tribute that debuted at West's going-away party. Ryan said farewell events cost $76,000 and the DVD tribute cost $30,000. Donations for the parties amounted to $96,000.
The bulk of the DVD's cost went to film the last 60 seconds, during which West transforms in appearance as he walks out of the museum, according to the IG report. At first, West is wearing a business suit and then outside the museum is donning full tribal regalia, including headdress. "We do not believe it was a prudent use of [museum] funds, given its cost," Ryan said.