Feinstein Eyes Changes to Smithsonian Board

Posted March 30, 2007 at 6:29pm

In the wake of a high-profile spending scandal at the Smithsonian, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last week that she has concerns about the composition of the institution’s 17-member board of regents and raised questions about the presence of the vice president and chief justice of the United States on the board.

“There are some questions in my mind whether the vice president and chief justice should really serve on the board,” she said of the regents, who are responsible for the governance and administration of the massive institution. “Certainly the vice president has more to do than go to meetings.”

Her comments followed public revelations about former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small’s lavish personal spending, which was approved by the board, and subsequent calls for a re-examination of the Smithsonian’s governance structure, specifically the composition of the board.

Feinstein chairs both the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, environment, and related agencies — two panels with key oversight responsibilities for the Congressionally chartered, nonprofit Smithsonian, which receives about 70 percent of its funding from the federal government.

In addition to Vice President Cheney (who is not known to attend meetings) and Chief Justice John Roberts, who serves as the board’s chancellor, the board consists of nine prominent citizens and six Members of Congress: Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chris Dodd (D-Con.), and Reps. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.). The board’s composition was established by the law that created the Smithsonian.

Members of Congress who serve on the board said they believe Members should remain a part of the board of regents, which meets quarterly, and asserted that their roles as elected officials do not hamper their ability to carry out their Smithsonian duties.

Dodd, who has been on the board since January, cited the example of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), whom he said had been a “revered” board member.

Leahy, meanwhile, called Members’ participation a “public service” that should be continued. He said he spent “a couple of hours a week” on reading related to his Smithsonian role and had been aware of potential problems. “I was concerned [and] that’s why I asked for the inspector general to report to the board of regents,” he said.

A confidential Smithsonian IG report, the details of which were first published by The Washington Post in February, looked at the more than $2 million in housing and office expenditures Small had received from the institution over the past six years. Small, who submitted his resignation March 24, also had $90,000 in unauthorized expenses, which the board subsequently approved.

Several Congressional members of the board compared the regents to the board of a large corporation.

There are “officials at the Smithsonian for proper accounting and handling of public funds,” Cochran said.

“You rely on your executive [the secretary and his staff] to provide you with the salient information to make decisions,” said Becerra. “They do the day-to-day” management.

Johnson said he wasn’t aware of the issues surrounding Small’s spending and compensation until “I saw the report in the newspaper.” While conceding that some of the expenses, which included chartered jet travel and tony hotel stays, “were over the top,” he asserted: “I don’t think Small did anything wrong” and said he was “sad” to see Small go.

Johnson added that he and his fellow House Members on the board would meet privately after the April recess to discuss the matter.

In the Senate, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who pushed for the initial audit, has led a charge for greater accountability at the Smithsonian. He recently sponsored a measure approved by the Senate that would freeze the $17 million increase in funding in the Smithsonian’s fiscal 2008 budget proposal. After Small’s departure, Grassley reportedly said he would have budget conferees remove it.

In response to the upheaval, Feinstein’s Rules Committee recently moved up a Smithsonian oversight hearing to April 11. It will examine the Smithsonian’s governance structures, the controversy surrounding Small’s personal expenses and compensation, and the backlog of repairs at the institution, which comprises 18 museums, research facilities and the National Zoo.

Among those expected to testify before the panel are Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightly Ryan; Roger Sant, chairman of the board’s executive committee; Patty Stonesifer, chairwoman of the board’s newly formed governance committee; and Acting Smithsonian Secretary Cristián Samper. Grassley has also been asked to testify.

Feinstein added that she had invited Roberts to testify, but his office said “he doesn’t do that sort of thing.”

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, environment, and related agencies had been scheduled to hold a hearing on the Smithsonian’s fiscal 2008 budget request on April 24 but has delayed the hearing to sometime later this spring in light of Small’s sudden departure and the regents’ own pending review of management and compensation issues.

In the future, Feinstein suggested that one option under discussion would be for all regents to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Senators and Representatives are appointed by the Senate President Pro Tempore and the Speaker, respectively, while citizen regents are nominated by the board and approved by Congress in a joint resolution the president signs. Depending on the scope, some changes to the board would require Congressional legislation.