PUBLIC INFORMATION A trusted acquaintance who prefers to be nameless forwards an interesting report on the vaunted new transparency policy at the nation's greatest museum.

The Smithsonian Institution Governance Committee last year made a series of recommendations to “reinforce the foundation of integrity and responsibility” and “strengthen the culture of accountability.”  (The Board of Regents, Governance Committee, Report of the Governance Committee to the Board of Regents (June 14, 2007), at 6).

The Committee also said:  "The Smithsonian Institution is committed to operating in a culture marked by openness, accessibility, and robust communication. All Smithsonian stakeholders should have access to appropriate and accurate information regarding the finances, operations, and activities of the Smithsonian Institution. Effective transparency also requires open and reliable communication between the Board, management, and other stakeholders to support informed decision-making."

Secretary G. Wayne Clough was quoted in a September 2008 Associated Press story as saying:  "The Smithsonian Institution should become more open and transparent."

But experience to date suggests that this goal is widely ignored at the Smithsonian.  In fact, the Smithsonian seems to be more overwhelmingly secret and institutionally paranoid than ever.

Last month, I learned, the Smithsonian Institution received a request for a copy of the final report and closing memo for specific investigations conducted by the SI Office of Inspector General:

1 – Theft/Embezzlement Case opened 10/11/2005 and closed 09/30/2008

2 – Public Concern Case opened 10/01/2006 and closed 03/31/2008

3 – Contract Procedural Irregularities Case opened 12/12/2006 and closed

4 – Mismanagement Issue Case opened 03/15/2007 and closed 05/09/2007

5 – Contract/Procedural Irregularities Case opened 04/04/2007 and closed

6 – Violation SoC Case opened 05/08/2007 and closed 06/20/2007

7 – Mismanagement Issue Case opened 06/13/2007 and closed 01/18/2008

Reportedly, the only document released by the Smithsonian was a report and closing memo for the final item (#7).  As for the rest, Epin H. Christensen, Counsel to the Inspector General told the requester to take a hike and that there was not even a tiny portion that could be released.  Experienced hands suggest that there are always some portions of some documents that can be released without causing the alleged harms.  The IG could release some of these investigation reports without serious impairment to anyone's privacy when balanced against the public interest. 

In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that every other Office of Inspector General — there are dozens — will provide releasable portions of its investigation reports upon request. Other Inspectors General provide for an appeal of decisions to withhold records — all but the Smithsonian OIG, that is.

This indicates that as a measure of secrecy at the Smithsonian, the institution is still 86% secret and has a long way to go to reach the aspirations expressed by the Governance Committee.

In other words, because the Smithsonian is not subject to any public records procedures and has complete discretion to flout the law, its assertions of openness and transparency are nothing short of a joke.

The Associated Press reports that taxpayer money currently covers about 70 percent of the Smithsonian's $1 billion budget.  And there is no more important single indicator of secrecy or openness than the extent to which the Smithsonian actually discloses after the completion of the investigation the type of public stewardship and integrity problems unearthed and investigated by its Inspector General.

And without transparency, the types of abuses seen at the Smithsonian in recent years — as well as those hidden, forgotten and buried in IG files which have never been unearthed — are destined to recur.  In a September staff newsletter, Clough wrote he is working to rebuild respect and trust after the last Smithsonian chief was forced out amid spending and compensation scandals.  Well, if the Secretary Clough is in fact instituting any transparency measures, apparently he has exempted from this process the very office that is most involved in ferreting out wrongdoing at the Institution.

If you have any concerns about this continuing trend toward secrecy at the Smithsonian, you may contact Mr. Christensen or even ask for these records yourself at:

Office of Inspector General
Attn:  Epin H. Christensen, Counsel to the IG
P.O. Box 37012 MRC 1204
Washington, DC  20013-7012
phone:  202-633-7050
fax:  202-633-7079

Mr. Christensen's assertions of secrecy would not likely hold up under any sort of rational examination.

Historical note:  Much of the press examination of problems at the Smithsonian began in April 2002 after D'Vera Cohn, a Washington Post reporter, asked for a copy of the autopsy report on a giraffe that died at
the National Zoo and was told by the Zoon director that the report was being kept secret to protect the personal privacy of the giraffe.  That bizarre assertion prompted much closer journalistic scrutiny of systemic problems at the National Zoo and ultimately problems at the Smithsonian as a whole.