Smithsonian Names New Chief for Troubled Business Ventures Unit

At a congressional oversight hearing on August 1, 2007, Acting Smithsonian Secretary Christian Samper announced the appointment of Tom Ott as acting chief executive officer (CEO) for the troubled Smithsonian Business Ventures (SBV) unit. Ott’s appointment came on the heels of the forced ouster the same day of former SBV CEO Gary M. Beer.

According to a report in the Washington Post, Samper required Beer upon his departure to reimburse the Smithsonian for $30,000 in questionable expenses. Samper also said the Smithsonian would report an additional $65,000 in unsubstantiated expenses to the Internal Revenue Service as possible income to Beer.

Ott currently serves as president of Smithsonian Publishing where he is responsible for managing and directing overall operations and strategy for Smithsonian and Air & Space magazines. Samper also announced the formation of a task force to investigate past practices of SBV and to make recommendations on the future of the business arm of the Smithsonian.

SBV was a major topic of questioning during the oversight hearing held before the House Administration Committee. Ranking Minority Member Vern Ehlers (R-MI) urged Samper and the Smithsonian Board of Regents to consider scrapping SBV altogether. Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) testified in her role as one of the six Members of Congress that served on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. She stated that the Regents had found gross problems at SBV and said that the unit had been involved in a number of “misadventures.” She questioned whether Smithsonian Business Ventures should be allowed to operate on its own and suggested the need to bring it back under the umbrella of the Smithsonian and make it subject to the same rules and procedures as the Institution.

Moving beyond a post-mortem on the past controversies, Acting Secretary Samper pointed out the need for Congress to provide more funding for facilities repair and maintenance. He reported that the Smithsonian has an estimated $2.5 billion backlog in maintenance projects that need occur over the coming years. He noted that it would require and additional $100 million in funding annually above current levels to address these maintenance needs.