June 2007

Senators Scrutinize Smithsonian

Washington, D.C. — In the wake of Smithsonian Institution secretary Lawrence M. Small’s resignation, new information about his earnings continues to emerge.

Small stepped down in March amid internal and external investigations into expenses he claimed on top of his compensation, which would have reached $915,698 this year. Since joining the institution in 2000, he also claimed $1.1 million in expenses for his Washington home, on which he has no mortgage, with the understanding that he would use the residence for Smithsonian-related entertaining. But in a recent letter to Senator Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, Roger Sant, chair of the executive committee of the Smithsonian’s 17-member Board of Regents, said that in the past four years Small had rarely held official functions at his house. The board, which includes Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., is responsible for hiring and supervising the secretary.

“We were surprised to find that Mr. Small used his home and gallery on a number of occasions during the first few years of his tenure, but that after 2003 there were very few events and no events from 2005 to the time of his resignation,” Sant wrote. The letter was in response to a request from Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, for information on Small’s pay package.

Small, who was unavailable for comment, told the Washington Post that he had hosted fewer events at his home because improvements at the Smithsonian made its museums “more compelling and cost-effective” for entertaining.

The Washington Post also reported that Small and deputy secretary Sheila Burke, who remains on staff, held high-paying seats on the board of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, which does about $500,000 in business with the Smithsonian annually. In a Senate Rules Committee hearing after Small resigned, Smithsonian inspector general A. Sprightley Ryan said the arrangement had the “appearance of a conflict of interest.” The Board of Regents recently set new regulations requiring executives to get approval to serve on any corporate board, says Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas.

At the Senate hearing, Ryan also testified that the Board of Regents was “not fully aware” of the housing allowance and other details of Small’s employment agreement. When Ryan released a report last January showing that the secretary had claimed nearly $90,000 in unauthorized expenses, the regents initially declared them “reasonable.” Subsequently, the board created an external committee to review Ryan’s reports on Small’s compensation, expenses, and donations, as well as the regents’ response. The committee is expected to deliver its findings on the 11th of this month.

During the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, chair of the Senate Rules Committee, questioned whether the regents, “given their day jobs,” can provide adequate oversight at the Smithsonian, which receives about 70 percent of its funding from taxpayers. “The time has come to examine whether there is a structure that will better serve this institution,” she said.

–Roger Atwood