Private Funds for Smithsonian Urged
At an oversight hearing Wednesday, Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) pressed the Smithsonian Institution’s top officials to come up with ways to privately fund an estimated $2.5 billion backlog in construction, repair and maintenance work at its facilities and urged them to rethink the institution’s current governance structures.
In recent months, the Smithsonian has been the subject of a string of embarrassing revelations ranging from the lavish compensation, housing allowance and expenses its board approved for former Secretary Lawrence Small, who resigned on March 24 in the wake of the controversy, to employees doing personal work for their superiors.
During the hearing, which was attended by only four of the Rules panel’s 19 members, Feinstein repeatedly emphasized the need for the institution to step up its efforts to raise funds for the upkeep of its facilities and cautioned its representatives against expecting the federal government to pony up an additional $100 million annually in facilities funds as the Smithsonian had desired.
“You can raise private money for facilities,” she said, responding to assertions by Smithsonian officials that most of the institution’s private donations were “earmarked” for other purposes. “I did it as mayor.”
Smithsonian officials testified that the institution received more than 70 percent of its budget in federal appropriations and grants. The president’s fiscal 2008 budget proposal requests about $678 million for the Smithsonian, a roughly $44 million increase over the previous year’s appropriation. Smithsonian officials had met with the White House in the fall in hopes of receiving an additional $100 million annually for facilities over the next 10 years. But Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office, questioned in his testimony whether that would be enough to do more than offset future needs.
Regent Roger Sant, chairman of the board’s executive committee, called the maintenance situation at the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and other facilities “dire,” but later said he believed compromise on the facilities budget was possible.
Regent Patricia Stonesifer — chairwoman of the board’s newly formed governance committee, which also includes a Congressional regent, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) — testified that the governance panel was meeting weekly through June to come up with a long-term reform blueprint. She said that acting Smithsonian Secretary Cristián Samper, who was at Wednesday’s hearing, already had begun to implement the committee’s recommendation for an interim policy restricting the use of Smithsonian funds for travel, entertainment, housing and other expenses that might be or appear “personal” — the perceived abuse of which precipitated Small’s departure.
Feinstein, who also is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the Smithsonian, asserted that “the time has come to examine whether there is a structure that would better fit” the institution and raised concerns about whether the eight public officials (the vice president, the chief justice of the United States and six Members of Congress) on the 17-member board of regents had the time to devote to proper oversight. “Unless there is close oversight, I don’t know how you justify public funds,” she said. She questioned officials about whether it would be helpful to legislate a salary cap for the Smithsonian secretary and whether the quarterly meetings of the board of regents were sufficient to practice proper oversight of the massive institution.
But Feinstein stopped short of proposing any immediate legislative remedy to reform the institution’s governance, saying it was better “for the institution to change itself if at all possible.” She gave the institution three months to report back to the Rules and Administration panel “in writing” laying out the specific improvements that would be made.
Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan, whose audit of Small’s expenses found some $90,000 in unauthorized expenses, testified that her review found “the current regents were not necessarily aware of the provisions of the employment agreement, especially those about his housing allowance” and noted the current Smithsonian culture did not appear to value transparency.
Ryan is expected to report to the regents in the coming weeks on an ongoing audit of the Smithsonian Business Ventures Division.
An independent review committee, which will look at Small’s compensation and expenses and the board’s response, will disclose its findings and recommendations to the regents at their June 11 meeting.