Feinstein Urges Speedy Smithsonian Appointment

Posted June 26, 2007 at 5:09pm

Citing a “dramatic, necessary mandate” and the risk of facing “significant jeopardy,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) repeatedly pressed witnesses to fast-track the appointment of a new secretary for the Smithsonian Institution during a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Roger Sant, a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, testified it would take six months to a year to fill the post that Lawrence Small vacated in March after allegations of his abuse of institution funds came to light, but Feinstein said this would be too long to wait.

“I have a hard time understanding why we need this huge search period,” she said.

Feinstein also pushed for witnesses to give timelines for other projects, such as the completion of an inspector general’s report on the expenses of Gary Beer, the former head of business ventures at the Smithsonian, and of a plan to address what was widely reported earlier this year to be a $2.5 billion backlog in facilities and maintenance repairs.

According to Sant, a report on the facilities issues should be released by the end of the year and the inspector general’s findings should be made public soon.

He said the delay in issuing the latter findings is not an attempt to conceal anything and he expects they will reveal a variety of tax law abuses. “It certainly won’t be good,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is trying to hide those in any way.”

Beer has stepped down from his position, and finding a replacement for him also was on the agenda at Tuesday’s hearing, which came on the heels of criticism-filled reports by both an independent review board and the Smithsonian’s governance committee.

Christián Samper, who is temporarily holding the position that Small vacated, hinted that the person qualified for the job would need to have experience in an array of areas including public relations and marketing and also have a deep appreciation of the culture of the Smithsonian.

Senate Rules and Administration ranking member Bob Bennett (R-Utah) called on members of the Smithsonian’s leadership to take on more responsibility in helping Samper find someone for the job and in other management aspects, expressing concern that they would just let Samper “wallow in the responsibility and then hold him accountable.”

Another position that needs to be filled is that of Sheila Burke, who will step down as the institution’s undersecretary and chief operating officer at the end of September.

While Burke has come under fire for her association with Small, members of the committee defended her and said they are grateful for her work at the Smithsonian.

“I know her work ethic,” Bennett said, noting that even though Burke was often out of the office, she was always reachable.

The need to fill these positions underscores a larger campaign to revitalize the way the Smithsonian is organized and to move away from the bottlenecks that have been attributed to Small’s reign.

Making the operations of the institution more transparent is one of the main goals of this campaign.

“We think for too many years, ‘The castle knows best’ is kind of the response that people got when they asked questions,” said Charles Bowsher, the former U.S. comptroller general who chaired the independent review committee, in testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.

To that end, witnesses and committee members discussed a broad range of options, including making the board of regents larger and assuring that its members consult more with outside experts.

“We do believe that a certain [amount] of expertise that is not there now needs to be brought onto the board of regents,” Bowsher said of the last of these options.