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Report clears former NMAI director for travel costs


The founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian was justified in traveling across the world to promote the institution, according to an investigation released on Tuesday.

Rick West, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, traveled the most of any director within the Smithsonian Institution. From 2003 through 2007, he spent more than $250,000 in places like Paris, Italy, Japan and New Zealand, along with locales across Indian Country.

"We do not question the need for Mr. West's travel, or the volume of his travel; similarly, we believe it was appropriate for him to entertain and cultivate donors and potential donors, and for him to devote significant time to his leadership efforts in the national and international museum communities," A. Sprightley Ryan, the Smithsonian's Inspector General, stated in the report.

However, Ryan said West should have "exercised better judgment" in spending NMAI's resources. The report cited two expenses -- a $48,500 official portrait and $30,000 farewell video -- that were generally out of line with Smithsonian practice but that did not violate any policy or law.

Ryan also found "problems" with West's travel spending -- -- improper reimbursements, inadequate documentation, an appearance of "lavish" expenses and travel and mixed business and personal travel. But the report did not blame the former director and instead said the fault lied with Smithsonian management.

As a result of the review, West agreed to reimburse $9,700 payments he should not have received. "It is regrettable that Mr. West's expenditures were not more in keeping with the prudence demanded of a non-profit leader, and more importantly, that the Institution, because of its anemic oversight, permitted these types of expenditures and errors," the report stated.

The investigation essentially clears West, who retired at the end of 2007 after working for the NMAI for 17 years. He helped raise over $155 million for the facility and oversaw its grand opening in September 2004.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who had requested the report, wasn't happy with the former director's spending habits. "Mr. West seemed to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted," the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee said in response to the report. "He traveled the world, stayed in fine hotels, personally kept honoraria even when he was speaking on Smithsonian business, and accepted and helped to arrange an elaborate send-off for himself."

The Washington Post first reported on West's spending in December 2007 in a a story that generated a flurry of news coverage and negative editorials amid criticism of the Smithsonian in general. That same year, the director and deputy director of the agency resigned amid an investigation into expenditures, leading to other departures among top officials and management.

The NMAI itself was under fire for replacing West with Kevin Gover, West's former law partner and the former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Gover, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, dismissed the criticism of his colleague and told The New York Times earlier this year that "in a very few months I think very few people will remember this."

West, who blamed the Post and Indian Country Today for what he called "gossip" journalism, had his defenders. Suzan Shown Harjo, a long-time friend and fellow Cheyenne-Arapaho, wrote in an Indianz.Com opinion piece that his detractors were off base by questioning his travel.

Inspector General Report:
Review of Travel Expenses of W. Richard West Junior (October 28, 2008)

Related Stories:
Gover thinks few will remember West's spending (1/21)
Harjo: On Rick West, Kevin Gover and NMAI (1/15)
Rick West: 'Gossip' journalism in ICT and WaPo (1/11)
Opinion: Rick West's abuse of power at NMAI (1/11)
Editorial: Rick West lost sight of basic mission (1/7)
Editorial: Rick West's extravagant lifestyle (1/4)
Ex-NMAI director West spent over $250K on travel (12/28)
Secrecy shrouded hiring of new NMAI director (09/19)
Gover outlines vision for Indian museum (9/18)
Cobell: Gover's hiring an affront to Native people (9/18)
Whites outnumber Indians on NMAI search panel (9/17)
Editorial: Kevin Gover, experience and NMAI (9/14)
Gover defends record after criticism from Cobell (9/13)
Cobell blasts Gover's appointment to NMAI (9/12)
Kevin Gover to take over NMAI on December 2 (9/12)
Kevin Gover named new director of NMAI (9/11)