Smithsonian's lavish spending

By Other views: Washington Post
Published March 2, 2007

"Mr. Small is not going to talk about his own compensation," says the spokeswoman for Smithsonian head Lawrence M. Small. Who can blame him, seeing how he doesn't seem to have to answer to anyone for his spending, no matter how extravagant? The Smithsonian board, which is supposed to oversee the wise use of public dollars, instead defends questionable expenditures by Small and even changes its rules to excuse his conduct after the fact.

A report by the Smithsonian inspector general questioned nearly $90,000 in unauthorized spending by Small from 2000 to 2005. Included were charges for private planes, the tab for his wife to go to Cambodia, catered meals and gifts. There was no evidence of fraud or abuse and no denying that many expenditures were related to Smithsonian business. Yet many transactions lacked documentation, violated Smithsonian policies and, in the words of the inspector general, "might be considered lavish or extravagant." The 17-member Board of Regents brushed the findings aside; in instances where the spending ran afoul of policy, the board just changed its rules.

Small is handsomely compensated (this year's package will be $915,698), so it's both inexplicable and offensive that he found it necessary to push the boundaries of what is allowed. Was it really necessary, for instance, to pay $14,509 to rent a jet for a round trip to San Antonio when commercial flights were available? Most striking was the way Small interpreted terms of a housing allowance, dispensing with filing monthly documentation and using a "hypothetical" calculation to collect $1.15-million over seven years. Never mind that Small owns his home free and clear.

As distressing as Small's actions were, the real problem lies with a board that opted to be more lap dog than watchdog. The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its budget from taxpayers and also relies on donations. It's the board's job to ensure that those resources are not wasted or misused.