Congress may cut Smithsonian funding after ‘lavish’ spending

WASHINGTON (AP) – Congress is taking another hard look at the Smithsonian Institution’s funding and governance after an audit showed the top official at the museum complex had nearly $90,000 in unauthorized expenses, including private jet travel and expensive gifts.

Lawrence M. Small, 65, who became secretary of the Smithsonian in 2000, will earn $915,698 this year in total compensation _ more than double his starting salary. He has also received more than $1 million over the past seven years for making his house available for official functions, the confidential audit by the Smithsonian inspector general and an independent firm showed.

The audit was first reported by The Washington Post in Sunday’s editions, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, released documents from the report Monday.

Grassley, who requested the report last year while chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, expressed outrage at the findings and said Small’s compensation takes money away from the Smithsonian’s 18 museums and the National Zoo _ which need repairs.

“The Smithsonian is a cherished American institution,” he said. “We can’t let its resources be squandered. Those resources need to go to sustain the museums and collections, not to some executive’s champagne lifestyle.”

The Senate Finance Committee is now looking at legislation to cut back the Smithsonian’s funding _ and to change the complex’s governance, a committee staff member said Monday. The House Appropriations Committee previously has signaled it may hold hearings next month on the Smithsonian’s executive compensation.

Grassley also sent letters Monday to congressional leaders and to Vice President Dick Cheney, who is on the Smithsonian board. Six members of the board are members of Congress and nine are citizens nominated by the board and approved by Congress.

Acting Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan would not comment on the audit Monday but said it was unusual for the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents to ask her to keep it confidential.

“Overall we saw no evidence of fraud or abuse,” Ryan wrote on Jan. 16 to the Smithsonian Board of Regents. “However, many transactions were not properly documented or were not in accordance with Smithsonian policies. Some transactions might be considered lavish or extravagant.”

Ryan noted that the majority of Small’s $846,312 in expenses between 2000 and 2005 were properly documented.

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said Small would not comment on his expenses or salary. She said the board’s audit committee was scheduled to meet again this week on the issue.

Small reports to the 17-member Board of Regents, which last month dismissed the findings and defended Small’s expenses. The board also approved changes to Smithsonian policies to allow for Small’s past expenses.

“We have great confidence in Larry’s leadership, and the regents’ actions reflect our confidence,” Roger Sant, chair of the board’s executive committee, said in a statement. “We have taken steps that we feel will remove the possibility of similar misunderstandings in the future.”

The report was kept confidential at the request of Small and the regents, St. Thomas said. The Smithsonian is both a nonprofit organization and a creation of Congress, which provides 70 percent of its funding.

Small’s expenses included a $14,509 round-trip charter flight to San Antonio in May 2001 _ which the inspector general called “excessive” because commercial flights were available. But the report said Small decided to use a private jet because it was the only way to get back to Washington in time for a regents meeting.

Another expense questioned by the inspector general was a $5,764 three-day side trip to Cambodia in 2004 for Small’s wife, Sandra, after she and her husband had traveled to China for the Smithsonian. The report also documented Small’s spending on high-end catering for staff, including $2,000 for alcohol. Flowers and gifts were charged against a trust fund that does not authorize gifts to staff, volunteers or donors, the inspector general found.

The report also revealed how Small has charged the Smithsonian for use of his residence. Previous secretaries have lived in a Smithsonian-owned home.

Small lives in a house that he owns and under his original employment agreement with the Smithsonian, he was allowed to claim reimbursement for up to half of his actual housing costs _ up to $150,000 per year _ for expenses such as mortgage payments, utilities or “equivalent costs of home ownership.” But Small used a “hypothetical” mortgage rate to charge the Smithsonian because he owned his home free and clear.

In response to the audit, the board dismissed the recommendation that Small be required to do more record-keeping of the expenses. The board instead approved the existing arrangement and authorized a $193,022 housing fee for 2007.

St. Thomas said the expenses in question were paid for by private trust funds, not from the Smithsonian’s $715 million in federal funding. Small and the board requested the audit last year, she said.


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