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Smithsonian Audit: More Executive Compensation Controversies

The detailed report in Sunday’s Washington Post about allegedly unauthorized expenses that were charged to the Smithsonian Institution by its top official, Secretary Lawrence Small, makes me wonder the same thing I wondered when the NY Times ran its exposé of Glenn Lowry‘s unorthodox compensation:
Is someone from Sen. Charles Grassley’s staff leaking information related to its investigations of museums?
James Grimaldi of the Post reports:
The [Smithsonian’s] board last month accepted the [board’s audit] committee’s decision to dismiss the findings [by acting Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan] and defended Small’s expenses as “reasonable.” The regents also decided to rewrite several rules to authorize many of the transactions that had been deemed in violation of policy.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who had requested the inspector general’s review when he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee last year, expressed outrage at the audit committee’s response.
“I am shocked at what the Smithsonian is spending its money on when it comes to food, flowers, alcohol and other items,” Grassley said in a letter last week to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who chairs the Board of Regents. Grassley criticized “what appears to be an ‘anything goes’ culture by the Smithsonian secretary and his staff, which views that his champagne lifestyle should be subsidized by the taxpayer.”
The inspector general’s letter and accompanying audit report were kept confidential at the request of Small’s office, according to Grassley’s staff. Copies of the letter and report were obtained by The Washington Post.

Why might the board, which is chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., have decided to give a the Smithsonian’s controversial chief officer a pass on this one? Were they inappropriately validating a waste of taxpapers’ funds? Or did they perhaps think that the small magnitude of possibly inappropriate expenditures made this an example of monumental political posturing over a molehill?
Let’s examine the numbers for a moment: The unauthorized expenses flagged by the inspector general amounted to nearly $90,000 over a six-year period, according to the Post. That means less than $15,000 a year in possibly dubious extravagances. Of the six-year amount, $27,000 went for “car service while on travel.” Larry, take the subway!
Even the inspector general was only mildly censorious in his letter to the Smithsonian board’s audit committee: “Some transactions might be considered lavish or extravagant.”
I’m not a defender of Small’s policies and practices at the Smithsonian. But I do think that the “scandal” here may be a run-amok politician who has latched onto a man-of-the-people cause by targeting “elite” institutions. And he’s milking it for more than it’s worth.

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