Driving Miss Pilar

Published: April 16, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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The Washington Post reported that Pilar O’Leary, head of the Smithsonian Latino Center resigned last February due to 14 ethical and conflict-of-interest violations.

According to a report the Post received in response to a Freedom of Information request, “The investigation revealed that O’Leary has not always acted in the best interests of the Smithsonian,” and that “Her conduct has violated the basic ethical rules of the Institution.”

Among the violations:  O’Leary “…rented limousines frequently, including one that took the Latino center’s board members from the Smithsonian Castle to the National Museum of Natural History.”

Now, I’ve been to the Washington Mall and the Castle is directly across from the National Museum; a leisurely walk of maybe 10 minutes!

What makes this all the more egregious is the fact that in 2007, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small was forced to resign for housing and expense account abuses including the use of limousines.

The report stated that O’Leary had “…also sent couriers to fetch items at her home, including wine, medication, a suitcase, a dress, keys and her BlackBerry.”  There, right there, you’ve got to be suspicious!  Who leaves home without their BlackBerry?

According to the Post, Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan also “…found that O’Leary solicited and accepted gifts and gratuities from outside companies and contractors doing business with or seeking to do business with the Smithsonian.”  In his report, Sprightley rightly stated (Sorry, I couldn’t resist) that, “Her conduct creates the perception that she is using her position for private gain, particularly through her solicitation of gifts and her excessive travel expenditures.”

Two years ago, O’Leary appeared on the cover of Washington Life magazine as a winner in the annual “Substance & Style Awards.”  It would seem by her expense account that there may have been too much of one and not enough of the other.

These are the questions I have for Sprightley and the Smithsonian Board:

Is anybody awake at internal audit at the Castle?

Wouldn’t you think that after one executive is booted for expense abuses, that the Board’s radar would be a little more sensitive to such behavior?

What other abuses have Smithsonian officials taken part in?

Are any officers tested on their knowledge of the Institution’s ethics policies?

And where is the leadership in all this?

I sit on the Board of “All for One” (see April 14 post) a local non-profit founded by Executive Director Matt Sanchez and Rich Munoz.  The last “lavish” expense receipt Sanchez turned in was for $250 for two board members to attend the “Partnership for Excellence” Conference held each year for non-profits.  He stayed for the entire conference, attended all the workshops and networking sessions he could manage, drove his own car, paid for his own gas, BlackBerry substitute, pen and paper.  I know.  I was there with him.

The next time I get a letter from the Smithsonian asking for my “support,” I will respectfully respond by asking to be removed from their mailing list until they get their own Castle in order.

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