In a front page story this week, the “Washington Post” continued its expose on questionable expenses incurred by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small. But perhaps most damaging to Small was an allegation made to the Post by the former Smithsonian inspector general Debra S. Ritt. She alleged that Small tried to steer her audit of Smithsonian financial dealings away from his own compensation, and the controversial Smithsonian Business Ventures operation, towards construction programs. The Post detailed lavish expenditures such as a $13,000 conference table, two $2,000 chairs, and $31,000 for upholstery during renovations of Small’s office at the Smithsonian. Small also received over $1 million in reimbursement over a six-year period for use of his home for Smithsonian-related activities.
The Smithsonian Board of Regents this week announced the appointment of an Independent Review Committee to reevaluate the Smithsonian Inspector General’s audit of Secretary Small’s compensation and expenses. The Review Committee is to report back to the Regents within 60 days.
On Capitol Hill, the response to the revelations in the “Washington Post” articles prompted outrage and swift action. On March 22, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved an amendment to its budget resolution freezing the proposed $17 million increase in federal funding that the Smithsonian was slated to receive in fiscal year 2008. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced the amendment which ties the release of the funds to a series of operational changes at the Smithsonian. First, no employee of the Smithsonian can be compensated more than the $400,000 salary paid to the President of the United States. Currently, Secretary Small’s annual compensation is over $900,000, or a half-million dollars more than the president makes. The other requirements are that the Smithsonian follow the same travel expenditure and ethical guidelines as federal employees, and that spending priority be given to repairing and maintaining Smithsonian facilities.
Secretary Small has been called to testify in both the House and Senate in April, so it remains to be seen whether he will be able to survive this firestorm.