Smithsonian Chief Steps Down Amid Criticism
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The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has resigned. For about a year now, Lawrence Small has been under attack from members of Congress and others for living what one senator called a champagne lifestyle at taxpayer's expense.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: The atmosphere at today's press conference was pretty somber as Roger Sant of the Smithsonian's board of regents, announced that the board had unanimously accepted Lawrence Small's resignation over the weekend.
Mr. ROGER SANT (Chairman, Audit Committee; Board of Regent, Smithsonian Institution): Certainly, there was a lot of discussion and reaction to this. And certainly, the regrets of his long service and outstanding service were weighed against the current contrary feelings among some people in that community.
BLAIR: Lawrence Small became secretary of the Smithsonian seven years ago. Before that, he'd held executive positions at Citycorp/Citibank and Fannie Mae. That corporate background made him a target of criticism from many of the Smithsonian's scientists and historians, who felt a scholar, would be better suited to run the institution. But at that time, the search committee believed Small's background would be an asset.
David Umansky was director of communications at the Smithsonian from 1994 to 2002.
Mr. DAVID UMANSKY (Director of Communications, Smithsonian Institution): He was somebody who had good ideas about how he wanted to manage the institution. He was an expert; do know the guitar; he played the guitar; he was fluent in Spanish. He seemed like someone who would be an ideal fit for the institution as it entered the 21st century.
BLAIR: Small did raise more than a billion dollars in private donations. But the internal culture wars started pretty quickly. For example, Catherine Reynolds offered to give the Smithsonian $38 million for a hall of achievers that might have included celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.
Long-time Smithsonian curators felt that was a sign of deteriorating standards. When Small approved of semi-exclusive contract with the cable network, ShowTime, filmmakers, historians and congressmen alike objected. But the real trouble for Lawrence Small began when an internal audit determined he'd racked up some $90,000 in unauthorized expenditures. Lawmakers were also outraged that he charged the Smithsonian for things like cleaning his backyard swimming pool at a time when the institution was having trouble finding money to pay for repairs and maintenance of its old buildings.
Mr. PABLO EISENBERG (Senior Fellow, Public Policy Institute, Georgetown University): I think he played fast and loose with personal expenditures including furnishing his office expensively. And there was no indication that he really cared about saving the taxpayer any money.
BLAIR: Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at Georgetown University who studies non-profits. Eisenberg is critical of the Smithsonian's board of regents for letting the situation get out of hand. He says part of the problem is the board's makeup, which was mandated in 1846.
Mr. EISENBERG: Its board of regents of 17 people is composed of eight people representing government, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the vice president of the United States and six congressmen, all of whom have absolutely no time to exercise their fiduciary responsibility as a board member. In fact, it's all they can do to do their own jobs well.
BLAIR: In light of those kinds of criticisms, the Smithsonian announced today that it is forming a new committee on governance. Christian Samper, who currently heads up the Museum of Natural History, was named acting secretary while a search begins for Lawrence Small's replacement. Last week, the Senate voted to freeze a $17 million budget increase until the Smithsonian exercises greater fiscal responsibility.
A Senate hearing looking into the problems of the Smithsonian, including Small's spending patterns is scheduled for April 11th. As for Lawrence Small himself, the board of regents said today he will not be getting a severance package. He's not entitled to one because he left voluntarily. And the board was quick to note he didn't ask for one.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.