Conflict at the Smithsonian
The institution seems oblivious to appearances.
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.