Con­flict at the Smith­so­nian

The in­sti­tu­tion seems obliv­i­ous to ap­pear­ances.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters To The Editor -

THE TOP two Smith­so­nian of­fi­cials who were paid big bucks for serv­ing on the cor­po­rate board of a firm do­ing busi­ness with the in­sti­tu­tion didn’t break any rules. But that doesn’t make the prac­tice right or their judg­ment cor­rect. The Smith­so­nian board, to its credit, is mov­ing to tighten its rules, but it needs to go even fur­ther.

The ques­tion­able ar­range­ment in­volved now-de­parted Smith­so­nian Sec­re­tary Lawrence M. Small and his deputy, Sheila P. Burke, who still serves. As re­ported by The Post’s Jac­que­line Trescott and James V. Grimaldi, the two served on the board of the Chubb Group, which has a $548,341 an­nual con­tract for in­sur­ance with the Smith­so­nian. Mr. Small, whose Smith­so­nian salary was $915,698, got $169,675 of Chubb cash and stock last year. Ms. Burke, with a $400,000 Smith­so­nian salary, re­ceived cash and stock val­ued at $194,676 for the same pe­riod.

Nei­ther of­fi­cial was in­volved in award­ing the con­tract to Chubb. But, as A. Spright­ley Ryan, in­spec­tor gen­eral for the Smith­so­nian, told Congress, “There cer­tainly is an ap­pear­ance of a con­flict of in­ter­est.” That Mr. Small and Ms. Burke were al­lowed to serve on this board with­out any se­ri­ous vet­ting is the latest ex­am­ple of the ut­ter lack of over­sight by the Board of Re­gents. It’s trou­bling that no one thought it nec­es­sary for the Smith­so­nian’s gen­eral coun­sel to re­view and ap­prove the ar­range­ment.

The drum­beat of con­tro­ver­sies about the com­pen­sa­tion and ex­pen­di­tures of of­fi­cials at a place sup­ported mostly by pub­lic funds has, thank­fully, spurred the board to ac­tion. If Ms. Burke wants to con­tinue on the Chubb board, or, for that mat­ter, an­other board for which she re­ceived $395,381 in di­rec­tor’s fees last year, she’ll have to get the gen­eral coun­sel’s ap­proval. But should Smith­so­nian em­ploy­ees be al­lowed to serve on cor­po­rate boards at all? Given the pub­lic trust in­volved in run­ning the Smith­so­nian, the disad­van­tages would seem to out­weigh the ad­van­tages.

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