WASHINGTON - Two government messes collided in Washington following the Sept. 11 announcement of Kevin Gover as the next executive director of the National Museum of the American Indian.
One was the federal mismanagement of Indian trust assets, occasion of a lawsuit that is in its 11th calendar year, with a fair and final settlement still nowhere in sight. Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that seeks an accounting and reimbursement of funds for the government's misdeeds in trust management, scalded the Smithsonian Institution for hiring Gover to head NMAI. Gover, in his former federal capacity as head of the BIA, was held in contempt of federal court for his agency's lack of response to court orders in the trust lawsuit, and Cobell hasn't forgotten it. She cast withering criticism on the candidate selection process that recommended Gover to NMAI's top post.
The other piece is the tenure of Lawrence Small as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which ended last spring amid questions about his leadership and expenditures.
In August 2001, Indian Country Today columnist Rebecca Adamson wrote a bitingly satirical take on an original Architectural Digest article focusing on ''one of the largest collections of Amazonian tribal art in private hands, conserving many valuable examples of a folk art form that is rapidly disappearing.'' The private hands were Lawrence Small's. Not surprisingly, the Smithsonian paid no attention to an Indian protest, and Small later proved to have been abetting the rapid disappearance of Amazonian tribal art (''folk art'') by illegally possessing the feathers of endangered bird species. He pleaded guilty to federal misdemeanor charges and performed community service in retribution. His Smithsonian tenure deteriorated from there to the point that a June 2007 Independent Review Committee report described the relationship between Small and the Smithsonian's governing regents in terms befitting a ringleader and his racketeers: ''Over the years, Mr. Small placed too much emphasis on his compensation and expenses. Rather than seeing this as an indication of the need for careful oversight, the Regents involved in Mr. Small's compensation, to the contrary, became complicit in Mr. Small's desire to maximize his personal income and have the Smithsonian pay his expenses.''
Sheila P. Burke, chief operating officer and deputy secretary of the Smithsonian under Small, earned more than $10 million in cash and stocks from corporate service while working for Small. She also joined Small in ''a level of absenteeism'' the review committee sharply criticized, working at the Smithsonian as second-in-command only three days out of every four. Her compensation and leave arrangements with the Smithsonian were known only to Small, who did not disclose the financial disclosure forms she completed, according to the Independent Review Committee.
Beginning in December 2006, Burke headed the search committee that ultimately recommended Gover to Cristian Samper as the next executive director at NMAI, following the impending retirement of inaugural director W. Richard West in November. (Samper, acting executive secretary of the Smithsonian since Small's departure, has the last word in hiring Smithsonian unit museum executives.) Small, already discredited for his Amazonian tribal art collection and his travel expenses, resigned in March 2007 after a Washington Post series exposed further shortcomings of his stewardship at the world's largest museum complex. But even after the June IRC report likened Burke's ''level of absenteeism'' and lofty compensation to Small's, Burke continued to head the search committee for West's replacement at NMAI. Her last day as Smithsonian deputy secretary and COO is Sept. 30. The IRC found that the next Smithsonian secretary ''must set the ethical tone, not sidestep it.''
Linda St. Thomas of the Smithsonian's public relations department declined to schedule an interview with Burke or Samper, leaving the question of whether Burke's role on a search committee after the IRC issued its report set an ethical tone or sidestepped it. Smithsonian management gave no thought to recusing Burke from the role, St. Thomas said, because she would not make the hiring decision on West's replacement. Her committee would only recommend candidates to Samper.
Brian Henderson, an NMAI trustee, said Burke's role in the candidate search process was always problematic. ''I believe the process was very poorly organized from the beginning,'' Henderson said. ''Sheila Burke had to be convinced that she needed to open the discussion to the [NMAI] trustees. The board of trustees was kept out of discussions. There was never a proper engagement between the Castle [Washingtonian slang for the Smithsonian executives who preside over the unit museums] and the NMAI trustees.''
Henderson asserts the Castle's first and last engagement with the board of trustees on the matter took place in January, before the selection process began. ''Burke did meet to discuss moving forward and to solicit possible candidates from the board. In effect, the nominating committee was formed and the board of trustees was not consulted after that. They said, 'These are the members of the selection committee.'''
The selection process, Henderson recalls, continued without further input from the museum trustees. ''There was no discussion of the composition of the selection committee or qualifications the board, in its collective judgment, thought were necessary. There was no communication regarding candidates anywhere along the line.'' Henderson felt the process was not a positive one for the museum, or for the Indian people it represented. ''There was no discussion with the trustees about what was good for Indian country, no proactive dialogue or communication. My impression is that, given the conclusion, there seems to have been an inside track.''
St. Thomas said the selection process was the same as for any Smithsonian unit museum, and she noted that four members of the 10-member selection committee were current or former NMAI trustees.
St. Thomas also maintains that West recused himself from any decisions regarding Gover because the two enjoy a friendship that goes back decades.
Rumblings have also been heard in Washington about West's travel expenses as the museum's director. Following The Washington Post's exposure of Small's dubious financial arrangements, every Smithsonian executive's expenses were under a microscope, said Eileen Maxwell, NMAI public affairs officer. She asked to see West's expenses because she wanted to face the public with precise information if called upon following last year's Smithsonian crisis.
''I went through every single travel document,'' Maxwell said. ''I sat down with Rick, I did my homework, I went back to the Code of Federal Regulations, and I didn't find a single document that would have raised an eyebrow. ... I didn't find a single indiscretion.''
Gover said that at present, he isn't sure how he would respond to a request for an audit of NMAI expenses early in his tenure. ''I haven't been in Washington. You'd know more about that,'' he said.
But he was in Washington last June, after the IRC report on the Small years became public, and he inquired closely into the steps the Smithsonian was taking to right itself, he said. He was satisfied that its policies going forward will be ethical and effective. ''It's a big deal to me that I don't derive benefits from public service beyond my pay.''