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Senators Call for New Probe of Smithsonian

POSTED: 10:46 AM ET, 12/30/2007 by The Editors

Two U.S. senators called for independent investigations of information contained in Friday's story in The Washington Post regarding more than $250,000 in travel expenditures over the past four years by the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley has asked the Smithsonian Office of Inspector General to look into the travel expenditures of W. Richard West Jr., while Senate Rules Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the Goverment Accountability Office to investigate.

"It sounds like Mr. West made quite a haul long before Christmas," said Grassley, who has been investigating excessive spending at charities in recent years. "You wonder how Santa had anything left to deliver."

The Post's story on West's travel is part of a year-long investigation the newspaper has mounted into governing and spending practices at the Smithsonian.

The Post reported that West was away from Washington traveling for 576 days on trips that included speaking engagements, fundraising and work for other nonprofit groups, such as the International Council of Museums. West often traveled far from American Indian culture: Austria, Australia, Croatia, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Korea, Spain and Sweden. West told the newspaper that a congressional mandate required him to travel as a global ambassador for the museum and he raised $155 million for institution during his tenure.

Feinstein, whose committee is charged with overseeing the Smithsonian, said in a statement, "We're asking for an accounting both from the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents, as well as from the Government Accountability Office. What I'm interested in is the nature of the trips, who authorized them, and what they accomplished."

In light of The Post's disclosures about West's trips, Grassley expressed doubt that the Smithsonian Institution has truly reformed after a scandal arose last spring about the spending by former Secretary Lawrence M. Small. "Overall, the West case raises real questions about the Smithsonian management's commitment to reform in the wake of the Secretary's departure last spring," Grassley said.

Staff members in Grassley's office also noted that they had begun inquiring about West's travel several weeks ago based upon inquiries from Post reporters. Also, Grassley's office had seen a story in "Indian Country Today" that referred to "rumblings...heard in Washington about West's travel expenses as the museum's director." Indian Country Today interviewed the museum's public affairs officer, who said she had examined the records and found no problems. Grassley said he asked acting Secretary Cristian Samper about the matter.

"When the West information was directly brought by my staff to the attention of the Acting Secretary several weeks ago, the reaction was to try to tamp down the exposure rather than to upend the system and get rid of the bad actors," Grassley said. "Despite what Mr. West did and everything it tells you about his judgment and stewardship of the Smithsonian, he still sits on the search committee for a new Secretary, for example."

Grassley asked Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan to examine "additional leave being granted to Mr. West by the Smithsonian leadership, along with the grandiose farewell event that was approved by those in charge." The Post reported his going-away activities cost $124,000.

"This case is a real litmus test for the Smithsonian Board. It can resolve to complete the reforms it promised Congress and the public and it can demonstrate that resolve by swift and sure action to get rid of this sort of abuse and those who make it happen," Grassley said.

By The Editors |  December 30, 2007; 10:46 AM ET
Previous: Nigerian Judge Orders Pfizer Arrests | Next: The Price of Neglect

Comments

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Enough already! Investigate members of Congress spending billions of dollars a year on a war they promised us all they would end. Stop picking on the Smithsonian because you don't have the gaul to investigate the powerful people in DC.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 3, 2008 10:19 PM

While West's behavior is very questionable and disturbing considering tax money is paying for his spending habits, it pales in comparison with the type of behavior that you see at most large corporations in the U.S. Any big law firm or investment firm will tell you about the extravagant lunches, parties, and travel everyone is entitled to. It just points out how the museum world has become corporate over the last decade.

If the Smithsonian has to start raising most of it's own money, it will devastate the capability of other non-Smithsonian D.C. museums and arts organizations to raise money in this city. It's going to be a long haul over the next decade for anyone involved with the arts, and especially museums.

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