Is the Latest Smithsonian Travelgate an Ethics Scandal or Just Republican Political Theater?

Is the Latest Smithsonian Travelgate an Ethics Scandal or Just Republican Political Theater?
Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough and Senator Chuck Grassley
(Wikipedia and AFP/Getty Images)

Is it unethical for a public servant who directs a large government institution to fly first class if he can produce a doctor’s note? That is one of the questions fueling the current scuffle between Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough. Earlier this week, Grassley demanded a review of Clough’s complete travel documents after an online report revealed the Smithsonian chief had taken 59 trips in the period between when he took office in July 2008 and July 2011, including visits to resort destinations in Colorado and Florida. At a time when wasteful government spending has become a hot topic, even the appearance of excess can destroy a public figure’s reputation. But is G. Wayne Clough really guilty of irresponsible spending, or just the victim of a grand-standing politician?

The Smithsonian has been in hot water for its leader’s traveling habits before. In 2007, former secretary Lawrence M. Small resigned after a Washington Post report revealed he was using federal money to finance cushy travel as well as renovations of his office and home. By contrast, Clough’s $120,000 travel fees were not paid for out of federal funds, according to Junketsleuth, the Web site that first reported on the Smithsonian head’s travel.

Why might Grassley have a problem with Clough’s travel if it wasn’t paid for with government money? For one thing, he says that he isn’t entirely sure that’s true. “There’s uncertainty based on the news reporting so far on who funded the travel and the purpose and accomplishments of the travel,” a Grassley spokeswoman told ARTINFO. “[Senator Grassley] wants to be sure the Smithsonian board of regents is vetting and signing off on the travel.” Furthermore, “the time away from the Smithsonian might be a concern, depending on what’s accomplished during the trips and whether decisions requiring leadership suffered in the absence.”

After the debacle with former secretary Small, the Smithsonian revised its travel guidelines for employees. Special requests (such as bringing along a spouse, which Clough did on at least 10 trips, according to Junketsleuth) must be approved by the general counsel, and all travel by senior Smithsonian executives is audited quarterly by its comptroller and board of regents. But Grassley, who played a central role in bringing down Clough’s predecessor (and who maintains a special section on his Web site for whistleblowers), seeks to confirm the proper reviews are actually being conducted. “It seems like the Smithsonian may not have learned from previous mistakes,” he told the Washington Post. His spokeswoman added that “the Smithsonian has been quoted as disputing elements of the junketsleuth piece, including who funded the travel.  Sen. Grassley wants to hear directly from the Smithsonian so there will be no uncertainty and no confusion....He wants to make sure the board of regents is doing its job to vet travel and other matters that were the source of serious problems under the prior secretary.”

In order to understand the positions of both Grassley and the Smithsonian, one must understand the unique nature of the institution’s funding. The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its budget from federal funds; the rest comes from private donations or museum revenue. A representative from the Smithsonian told ARTINFO that neither Clough’s salary nor his travel funds come from the federal portion of its budget.

Fifty-four of Clough’s trips last year, she said, were paid out of the non-federal portion of its budget, while five of the trips were financed by external organizations entirely independent of the Smithsonian. Senator Grassley’s office expressed concern that some of the organizations — George Washington University, Williams College, Midwest Research Institute, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences — might receive federal funding themselves, which means that taxpayers would have, in fact, been financing some portion of Clough's trips that might have involved the use of charter flights and private car services. But a Smithsonian representative told ARTINFO that the federal travel regulation to which the institution conforms “does not require an examination of the financial backgrounds of sponsors to determine if they receive federal funds.”

Drawing a distinction between private and public funds and how they are spent is a tactic to insulate institutions from these kinds of questions, noted Steven Dubin, a professor of arts administration at Columbia University. However, when politics gets involved, such bureaucratic explanations are often futile. He recalled that “Hide and Seek,” the controversial exhibition from which David Wojnarowicz video “A Fire in My Belly” was ultimately censored when it appeared at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in 2010, was also funded by entirely private funds “precisely so that there wouldn’t be the concern that there was federal money paying for it. And we all saw that happened there.”

And indeed, Grassley’s office noted that parsing where funds come from isn’t as important to the senator as how they are being used: "All money that the Smithsonian generates, regardless of its source, is supposed to fulfill the Smithsonian’s mission,” the senator's representative said. 

Some aren't entirely convinced the investigation is worthwhile, however. “It seems to me like these are legitimate expenditures,” responded Dubin. “Frankly, it sounds like nitpicking to me.”