Smithsonian Oversight Likely to Continue

Posted August 1, 2007 at 5:49pm

While investigators and administrators say that efforts to fix how the Smithsonian Institution is governed are on track, Congress is expected to continue its oversight role in regard to the institution in the upcoming year.

Since former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small resigned in March amid allegations that he grossly misused public funds for his own compensation and expenses, two separate committees have studied why things went wrong and submitted recommendations on how to improve governance at the institution.

At an oversight hearing Wednesday sponsored by the House Administration Committee, former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher testified that Congress should keep a close eye on the institution to ensure recommendations put forth by its Board of Regents and the Independent Review Committee are implemented.

“Openness and transparency have to be watchwords for the future of this institution,” said Bowsher, who took part in the Independent Review Committee study.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first conducted this Congressional session by the panel, which has oversight jurisdiction over the Smithsonian in the House. (The Senate Rules and Administration Committee already has held multiple hearings this session.)

Although witnesses testified that things are improving, scandal continues to mar the Smithsonian. Gary Beer, the head of Smithsonian Business Ventures, the institution’s business unit, was ousted this week after an inspector general’s report found he had billed only about 20 percent of his expenses to levels fully authorized by the Internal Revenue Service.

Acting Secretary Cristián Samper told the panel that Beer has been asked to reimburse about $26,000 worth of expenses and that about $65,000 more could be reclassified as reportable income — meaning Beer could pay tax on that money.

(In a letter to his former staff written Wednesday, Beer denied that he did anything unethical, wrote his expenses were in-line with his position and said he was “deeply disappointed” in the IG’s report.)

Despite the newest hurdle, Samper said he was optimistic that things would improve at the Smithsonian in upcoming months.

Five of the 25 recommendations put forth by the Governance Committee of the Board of Regents already have been implemented, Samper testified. Seventeen others should be done by September, and all but one will be completed by the end of the year, Samper added.

Those recommendations include prohibiting senior staff from serving on corporate boards, adopting an institution-wide leave policy and formalizing the institution’s observance of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Board of Regents also must work quickly to find a permanent secretary, Bowsher testified. And that board, including its Congressional representatives, must increase its oversight functions, he added.

“Never again should the board allow itself to be shunted aside and marginalized by management,” Bowsher testified. “The board must be willing to ask the tough questions and demand answers.”

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who sits on the Governance Committee, told the panel that many changes can be done reasonably quickly through administrative means.

However, Congress might need to enact legislation if the board ultimately decides more must be done, she said.

As of now, the board is studying its structure to come up with a plan for how to improve its oversight of the institution, and by next year it should return to Congress with recommendations, Matsui added.

“We’ll certainly work with you as we move forward,” Matsui said, adding that increasing the number of regents is one possibility.

“We feel it is really important to inform the Congress about the direction we want to go,” she added. “These won’t be recommendations you will be surprised by at all.”

House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said he was “absolutely delighted” with how quickly the board had moved to correct problems, but added that more should be studied to make sure the internal operations of the institution are solid.

“We want a squeaky-clean, well-running operation, from the top of the pyramid to the bottom stone,” he said.

Ehlers also urged the panelists to study whether the business venture should even continue.

“To set up a separate business arm seems to me unnecessary,” Ehlers said.

Smithsonian Inspector General Anne Sprightley Ryan told the committee that a lack of oversight allowed problems to emerge at the business venture, such as how Small managed to spend so much during his time in charge.

Samper has appointed a task force to study the “fundamental questions” surrounding the business venture, he said. In the meantime, Smithsonian officials are working to ensure the policies between the institution and the business unit are the same, Samper added.

“I am not yet convinced what needs to be done there at all,” Matsui said. “I do know that we need to look at it.”

Congressional oversight of the Smithsonian is expected to continue after the August recess. On the Senate side, the Rules panel requested that the Government Accountability Office study what went wrong at the Smithsonian and submit its own set of recommendations.

The report is expected to be completed in the next couple of months, according to Rules spokesman Howard Gantman.

House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) promised that his panel will continue to oversee efforts at the institution, adding that he does not want to see admission fees implemented at any Smithsonian museum or attraction.

But Brady also thanked Samper for moving quickly to fix problems that have plagued the institution.

“You were left with some residue you have to clean up,” Brady said.