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Smithsonian Transparency Is Sought

In 2007, then-Secretary of the Smithsonian Lawrence Small’s leadership and lifestyle embroiled the world’s largest museum complex in scandal.

And although the Smithsonian Institution has since worked to distance itself from the episode, its board of regents — which was essentially asleep at the wheel during Small’s spending spree, according to an independent review by the Government Accountability Office — remains structurally intact.

But two bills recently introduced by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) would radically alter the composition of the board’s makeup and subject the Smithsonian Institution, which receives 70 percent of its funding from Congress, to the Freedom of Information Act for the first time. A third bill would ensure that the permanent exhibits at the Smithsonian’s 17 museums and art galleries remain free to the public.

Norton’s bills come on the heels of a GAO report titled “Smithsonian Institution: Governance and Facilities Reforms Progressing, but Work Remains.” The report notes that the Smithsonian Institution has yet to implement a number of reforms recommended by the GAO to improve oversight and transparency.

Although the timing of the GAO report and Norton’s bills seem related, Norton said she began work on the legislation shortly after the imbroglio in 2008.

According to Norton, the media coverage that focused primarily on Small’s spendthrift ways belied the fact that Charles Bowsher, a former comptroller general who headed the GAO’s independent review, had identified the Smithsonian’s board of regents as a major part of the problem.

Bowsher found that many of the members of the board — which is dominated by officials who include the chief justice of the United States, three Senators and three House Members — have little time for oversight.

Norton said in an interview that Small was able to get away with his excesses because “he just didn’t have to report to these very busy people.”

To address that concern, Norton’s first bill would reconstitute the board to comprise only private citizens who are “the kinds of people who are in the governance structure of comparable institutions like major art galleries.”

“I can think of no reason why the head of regents should be the chief justice of the United States,” she said, citing the ethical quandary a fundraising letter signed by a Supreme Court justice would pose.

In addition to reforming the board of regents, Norton said she hopes the Open and Transparent Smithsonian Act will provide the same measure of openness mandated for every other federal institution that receives 70 percent of its funding from Congress.

“If there’s a federal institution that the press can’t watch, it better be the Federal Reserve,” Norton said. “It better be just that special — not an institution like the Smithsonian.”

The Smithsonian Institution declined to comment for this report.

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