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Former NMAI director;s spending scrutinized

Part one

WASHINGTON - Beginning Dec. 28, the Washington Post newspaper published news articles and an editorial that criticized W. Richard West, the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, for alleged abuses of his travel and expense budgets. After 17 years at the helm of NMAI, West has recently retired and the Post expose follows him out the door.

The Post began with the assertion that over the past four years, West has spent $250,000 in Smithsonian Institution funds on first-class international travel and lodgings. It went on to take a sharply critical view of funds spent on a video production of West;s tenure at NMAI and a commissioned portrait of him, before ending with an editorial that contradicted itself in plain language, stating early on that it knew of no deception on West's part and insisting sentences later that West's fully authorized travel forms ''only glancingly noted'' his destinations and whereabouts.

Congress has followed the Post reports with requests for various investigations of West's spending, and of spending at each of the Smithsonian's unit museums. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, directed especial criticism at West in a letter to the Smithsonian Board of Regents, first reported in the Post.

West and his staff maintain they have raised $155 million for the museum, $51 million of it in the four-year period when West's expenditures drew the Post's disapproval.

NMAI is a unit museum of the Smithsonian Institution, which is largely funded by Congress. In the 1989 law that authorized NMAI, Congress charged it with raising one-third of its budget. West has often publicly acknowledged as indispensable the skills of his development staff and the value of a support system that included names like Rockefeller and Inouye, but he was in charge of raising the money that built and sustained the museum on the Washington Mall, as well as its branches in New York City and Suitland, Md.

Robert Moore, a councilman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, provided some idea of West's standing in Indian country as more than a fundraiser. NMAI is all but universally regarded in Indian country as a ''cultural endeavor'' of the highest importance, ensuring the survival and perpetuation of Indian life. The depth of thought, spiritual investment, and feeling on the matter can hardly be exaggerated.

Moore explained that West, in his conceptualization and advocacy of the museum, has been extraordinarily valuable to all of Indian culture at just about every level, from languages to art and spirituality. ''It's unfortunate that he leaves with this lacquer on him. Someone put that on him.''

At the same time, he said doesn't like the look of $250,000 in travel costs. ''It seems exorbitant to me. Is he responsible for all of that? Probably not. Should he have shown better judgment? Absolutely.''

The necessity for better judgment was imposed by the role of Congress in Indian country, according to Moore's account: ''It's counterproductive to what we [tribal council members] do when we go to Washington and ask for funding.'' A tribe like Rosebud will scrimp and save to send one, two or three council members to Washington requesting more police officers or a suicide prevention center. They'll have to jump through hoops anyway, and now there's one more as questions arise about NMAI spending as a supposed sub-category of Indian spending. ''The conversation locally is the same one we're having. I suspect the same conversation is taking place with tribal councils across the northern Plains.''

In Washington, where probably a larger percent of the population than elsewhere is familiar with the requirements of fundraising on a large scale, the conversation was different in some quarters. Virginia ''Ginny'' Boylan, an attorney with the firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath, said West's alleged expenditures didn't seem extreme or even improper to her. ''I just think he was an ambassador to the world for Native arts and culture. I think it was wrong of the Post to do this once he was out the door.'' Congress had plenty of time to demand improvements if it wanted West to mend his ways, she noted.

For anyone in West's position, she added, first-class accommodations aren't necessarily optional. ''If you want to raise money from the elite, you've got to hob-nob with the elite. If you want to hob-nob with the elite, you've got to stay at the better hotels ... not a Super 8 in the suburbs. Has anyone checked hotel prices in Manhattan lately? Midweek, Manhattan, if you can get a room at all, it's $500 a night, even for a dump,'' referring to a Post editorial swipe at West's alleged $1,000 a night stays in Manhattan.

West's travel wasn't an issue with her. ''You can't do this work behind a desk.''

Boylan said the Post also completely mischaracterized a farewell dinner for West, which she attended. As would have been expected of a dinner at the museum, the fare was Native cuisine. ''It was a fine dinner, very nice. But I wouldn't call it at all lavish.''

Rebecca Adamson, founder and president of the former First Nations Development Institute and now of First Peoples Worldwide, near Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., is one of a very few people in Indian country whose professional experience exactly parallels West's. She raised funds from domestic foundations for decades, becoming a lead figure in Native-specific philanthropy. With FPW, she began to raise funds internationally and notes that ''it's a whole different level.''

Regular trans-Atlantic flights, of a kind reported by the Post for West, take a toll on health that she has experienced and research proves, she said. Yet any fundraiser, any ambassador who is out to establish a presence, has got to be ''on show'' again shortly after the flights, and first-class accommodations, though she could seldom afford them on her organizational budget, surely help. ''If Rick wasn't traveling first-class on some of those flights, he should have been.''

Adamson offered further defenses of West, tempered only by the awareness that congressional investigations are going forward. ''But without any more information, I think the articles were beneath the Post. These were not cub reporters on a coffee budget. How about calling a comparable organization, talking with a development officer about whether they think $250,000 over four years is excessive?''

Adamson, who is Cherokee, has some claim to being a major Native fundraiser in her own right, but she dismissed any notion of rivaling West in that regard. Acknowledging the museum's superior visibility, support system and number of staff, she still said West is the most prolific Indian fundraiser known to her. ''Without a doubt, this man had the lead role in raising $155 million.''

The Post's manifest efforts to paint West as a man-about-town instead of a fundraiser and ambassadorial presence struck her as unworthy of a major national newspaper. ''If you're a fundraiser at that level and you enjoy receptions and galas, it's part of your job and you got lucky. Not everyone enjoys that part of it as much. I always like the conceptual stuff [the presentations of a project proposal the reception circuit can lead to]. But whether you enjoy it or not, you've got to go. It's your job. ...

''[Raising] all this money ... happens at gala events, parties, posh receptions. You've got to be there if that's your mission. It happens in Manhattan, London, Paris, Venice, and a lot of other places Rick went. You've got to be there if that's your mission.''

West did not respond to interview requests by press time.

(Continued in part two)