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Inspector General’s report admonishes former NMAI director

WASHINGTON – Some Native observers have been quick to praise a recent report by the Smithsonian Institution’s Inspector General centered on W. Richard West, former head of the National Museum of the American Indian, saying that it clears him of spending misdeeds. West himself feels exonerated, but some who have read the report – and have learned of his subsequent apology – still have questions.

The report was requested by Congress after investigative reports into West’s spending appeared in The Washington Post in late 2007 and early 2008. Soon after they appeared, West and others decried them as gossip journalism. The articles were partially written by James V. Grimaldi, an investigative reporter who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and who reported extensively on the Smithsonian’s spending.

West argued that his spending on travel, which the Post documented at $250,000 over approximately 4 1/2 years, was being falsely labeled in the press as “lavish” and “extravagant.”

“Real Indian country deserves better than rumor-mongering and character assassination, and so do I,” West wrote in an Indian Country Today op-ed in January 2008.

The Inspector General’s report ultimately agreed that his spending was often “lavish” and “extravagant.” In fact, it turns out the Post’s $250,000 number was likely a conservative figure, given that the report found West’s travel spending to be approximately $217,000 for just 2006-7.

West calculated early this year that from January 2003 to June 2007, he spent an average of $55,556 per year on travel, adding that the number represented only .0016 of NMAI’s total annual budget. He said the efforts to build a new Smithsonian museum in this day and age were unprecedented, and he argued that his national and foreign travel was necessary in order to visit and learn from many of the nation’s tribes and international indigenous cultures.

West also said that museum efforts to honor him in his final year at the museum – including a $48,500 portrait of him commissioned to a non-Native artist – were not made at his request. The Inspector General’s report makes clear that the commissioning of such an expensive portrait has been largely unheard of in the Smithsonian’s history.

The Inspector General’s report, released at the end of October, contained language that has West feeling partially appeased.

For instance, A. Sprightley Ryan, the Smithsonian’s inspector general, wrote in the executive summary: “We do not question the need for Mr. West’s travel, or the volume of his travel; similarly, we believe it was appropriate for him to entertain and cultivate donors and potential donors, and for him to devote significant time to his leadership efforts in the national and international museum communities.”

West, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and a peace chief of the Southern Cheyenne, told ICT in an interview that he felt vindicated.

“I found, in very fundamental ways, a sense of exoneration…,” West said, adding that in many aspects the report “was supportive of me, not critical.”

West noted that he knows Inspector General Ryan personally, and he sat on the selection committee that chose her for the job when he still worked at NMAI. The report also indicated that he reviewed it before its release, as is apparently common practice.

West added that he did not want “to pretend that the report is without criticism of me,” but laid much of the blame surrounding controversies during his tenure on a lack of clear Smithsonian policies.

Among the report’s strongest conclusions against West were that he “should have exercised better judgment in spending NMAI’s limited resources when it came to his travel and other expenses.”

Ryan wrote, “It is regrettable that Mr. West’s expenditures were not more in keeping with the prudence demanded of a non-profit leader….”

West has already apologized for any errors he committed that didn’t align with Smithsonian policy, as well as for any administrative mistakes that ended up seeing him collect reimbursement monies to which he was not entitled.

“I step up to it, and I embrace the effort they made to go through this information so carefully,” West said.

“It was not hard to step up. If you have integrity and a sense of responsibility, of course you step up to it. It’s the way I was raised.”

As part of what he called his need to be responsible, West agreed to pay back $9,700 to the Smithsonian that he said resulted from mistakes in processing his travel forms.

Despite West’s apology, he said he did not agree with every element of the report. In a document written by his lawyer, Michael R. Bromwich, West takes issue with several items in which Ryan focused on thousands of dollars he collected as personal honoraria from speeches and teaching while still holding his top post. West said that he collected monies appropriately and by the rules.

The Inspector General’s report noted that for 24 speeches West gave from 2003 through his retirement, he received $68,500 in honoraria, as well as $27,766 in 2006 for his time serving as a guest professor at the University of Oregon Law School.

Pablo Eisenberg, a scholar and advocate for greater accountability in the government and non-profit worlds, said West is “unjustified” in feeling vindicated.

“He agreed to fork over $9,700. Why did he do that? The fact that he felt compelled to hand over the money is meaningful.

“And regardless of what the Inspector General says, even if there has been no policy on honoraria, it is well-known ethical policy among non-profits that you do not pocket honoraria. It’s just not done.”

Eisenberg, a senior Fellow at the Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, added that the report “pulled punches” by not blaming West more directly for his spending, instead making what Eisenberg labels “excuses” regarding lacking oversight policy at the Smithsonian when West was on staff.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the Congress members who called for the report, continues to have issues with West’s spending — and he’s been asking questions about whether the amount West paid back was enough.

“Sen. Grassley has serious concerns about the Inspector General report, which made several sweeping conclusions about Mr. West’s travel and expenses that were not supported substantively or analytically in the report,” said Jill Geber, a spokeswoman for Grassley.

“For example, the report states that Mr. West’s extensive travel was ‘entirely appropriate’ and an ‘essential part of his duties’ that ‘did advance the Smithsonian mission.’

“However, the report contains no analysis of just how the Smithsonian benefited from Mr. West’s travel to Paris, Venice, Vienna, or the structuring of a vacation in Bali around a single speech in Australia.

“Maybe every dollar of Mr. West’s travel expense was an investment that returned tenfold to the Smithsonian, but it’s impossible to draw such a conclusion from reading the report.”

Gerber said that Grassley hopes future Inspector General reports “will be less inclined to make statements that are not supported by analysis.” She added that the onus is now on the board of regents of the Smithsonian to take further action, both involving West and Smithsonian policy on travel expenses, travel time away from the institution, and honoraria going forward.

West said he understands that he has his detractors, and he wants to be careful not to be seen as being opposed to the efforts of people like Grassley to oversee the administration of non-profit and government entities.

Since West’s retirement from NMAI near the end of 2007, he has taken on a lawyer position with his former legal partner at the Stetson Law Offices in Albuquerque. He also consults on various Indian-related issues, and he continues to serve on several non-profit boards.

West said that his personal cutbacks in spending in recent months “have had more to do with global economics than anything.”