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NMAI, Smithsonian keen on accountability

WASHINGTON – W. Richard West was one of three high-ranking Smithsonian officials who received much scrutiny in the past year from Congress, the media and others regarding spending at the museum’s many facilities. Officials with the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian at-large now seem quite keen on seeing that the kinds of expenditures that took place during West’s tenure don’t happen again.

The extensive travel of West, who retired as director of NMAI in late 2007, was recently determined by the Smithsonian’s Inspector General to be appropriate, but some of his expenses were still labeled in the investigation as “lavish” and “extravagant.” His excesses and those of other top institution officials have led in recent months to policy crackdowns.

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, said that many of the institution’s newer policies went into effect while West still held his position in May and June 2007. She noted that the Smithsonian has always abided by the federal government’s travel rules, both before West’s tenure and after.

One of the main accountability measures involves employees getting permission from supervisors on travel and other job-related activities.

In West’s case, he received permission for travel from Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke, who, in turn, reported to Secretary Lawrence M. Small. Both Small and Burke left the Smithsonian in 2007 largely as a result of personal overspending controversies.

Since the top officials’ departures, there has also been an increased reliance on Smithsonian under secretaries to inspect travel plans of their subordinates.

“The onus is on the approving official to approve the travel and to deny anything that appears to be lavish,” St. Thomas said.

Annual reviews are now in place, too, to examine Smithsonian directors’ travel, and every request for a trip that is more than five days or cost more than $2,500 receives increased scrutiny. The institution also started using an electronic system called GovTrip, which raises red flags if travel plans seem unusual.

St. Thomas said that current Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, who came on the job in July, hasn’t felt the need to create any new policies, as the recently added ones seem to be doing their job. She also noted that he never met West, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and a peace chief of the Southern Cheyenne,

Clough recently issued a statement saying the museum complex has strengthened its policies to ensure that excesses, like those seen under Small, Burke and West, “never occur again.”

Kevin Gover, the director of the NMAI who replaced West, said he is well-aware of the controversies surrounding West’s spending, but he doesn’t think West’s situation has reflected poorly on the museum itself.

“I have yet to have anyone express their displeasure with the museum over any of this,” said Gover, who previously worked with West at a law firm.

“I think that the Inspector General’s report [involving West] was quite critical of Smithsonian policies generally at that time, and noted that they’ve been changed. So, I think the institution has reacted appropriately.

“We’re most unlikely to see a repeat of any of these sorts of concerns.”

Gover, a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, has said that he won’t be doing the extent of traveling like that of his predecessor, but he doesn’t worry that less travel will harm the museum in any way.

He feels it was important for West to travel extensively nationally and internationally to establish relationships with cultural institutions and indigenous communities.

“Those relationships are now in place, and certainly our staff people will continue to visit places to maintain those relationships,” Gover said.

Gover said it is of utmost importance that Indian country donors, who include individuals and tribes, feel that NMAI is being accountable with their donations.

He said the board of trustees of the museum has made clear to him that it takes oversight responsibility “very seriously” and expects “utmost transparency.” When receiving a major donation, Gover said the museum enters into a contract with donors to be sure the monies are being used as they see fit.

“I hope that tribal leaders know, too, that they can call me anytime for any question they want to ask, and they will get an answer,” Gover said.