AN EMBARRASSING mess at the Smithsonian Institution must be cleaned up without further delay by the board overseeing the federally funded group of museums in Washington, D.C., which house many of this nation's historic and cultural treasures.
The reputation of the venerable Smithsonian, sometimes referred to as "America's attic," has been crippled by its top official, Lawrence M. Small, whose title is "secretary" and who seems to have been behaving like a petty potentate ever since he was appointed in 2000.
The institution's trustees, ironically known as regents, have been indulging a royal lifestyle for Mr. Small, paying him a salary of more than $600,000 while picking up the tab for maintaining his private home and at least $90,000 in expenses an official audit said "might be considered lavish or extravagant."
All this has been happening at a time when many Smithsonian buildings, which include 18 museums, research facilities, and the National Zoo, are reported to be in poor repair, with at least one major facility closed and leaky roofs in others threatening historic exhibits.
With regard to Mr. Small, his total compensation this year will top $915,000, including a highly questionable housing allowance. Over seven years, he has pocketed $1.15 million in return for an agreement, agreed to by the regents, that he use his home for Smithsonian functions - events apparently few and far between.
Under the deal, Mr. Small, a multimillionaire who lives in a palatial 6,500-square-foot home in Washington, has been compensated for his utility bills, maintenance, upkeep on his swimming pool, and housekeeping services, including $2,535 to clean a chandelier.
Then there is the matter of a continuing stream of luxury expenses for Mr. Small and his wife, including first-class, charter jet, and limousine travel. The audit reportedly found no supporting documents for $28,000 of the $90,000 claimed.
These all-too generous perks are the kind that make taxpayers grit their teeth in frustration, inasmuch as the Smithsonian gets 70 percent of its budget - $715 million last year - from the federal government. The reply has been that Mr. Small's salary and expenses are paid from private contributions, business ventures, and the trust that makes up the remainder of the institution's funding. But that's just a dodge.
The regents have a responsibility to be good stewards of all Smithsonian funding, no matter its origin. Wasting money through excessive salary and expenses is an abdication of their fiduciary duties.
Roger Sant, who heads the regents' executive committee, has defended Mr. Small, telling the Washington Post that the institution has been improved, and besides, "He has raised $1.1 billion, and contributed more than half a million dollars himself. I don't think he does this job for money."
In any case, the apparent excesses have attracted the attention of Congress, including Sen. Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who suggested that Mr. Small has a "Dom Perignon" lifestyle that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize.
The Smithsonian regents would do themselves a favor if they would rein in the expenses, find the money for repairs, and put the institution on a more egalitarian footing.
Either that, or Congress will do it for them.