Posted on April 15, 2008

Smithsonian Official Resigned In Wake of Ethics Probe

James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott, Washington Post, April 15, 2008

The head of the Smithsonian Latino Center resigned in February after an internal investigation found that she violated a variety of rules and ethics policies by abusing her expense account, trying to steer a contract to a friend and soliciting free tickets for fashion shows, concerts and music award ceremonies, according to records released yesterday by the Smithsonian.

Pilar O’Leary, who was hired in 2005 by then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small to be the institution’s key representative on Latino affairs, billed the Smithsonian “extravagant” and “lavish travel expenses,” and used her expense account on personal purchases such as outings to a spa and hotel gift shops, the Smithsonian inspector general found.

In a report released yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Washington Post, Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan said O’Leary violated 14 ethical and conflict-of-interest policies. Many details were unclear because long passages were blacked out by Ryan for privacy reasons. “The investigation revealed that O’Leary has not always acted in the best interests of the Smithsonian,” the report concluded. “Her conduct has violated the basic ethical rules of the Institution.”

O’Leary, 39, denied any wrongdoing, saying in an e-mail to The Post that the tickets were “not gifts” and that her travel had been approved by her supervisors in the office of then-Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke. In an interview with investigators made public with the report, O’Leary said she had never been questioned by superiors regarding her travel expenditures.


The inspector general 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 and who had interests that could be affected by O’Leary’s official duties. “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,” said the report, which was written before her resignation.


Two contracts O’Leary advocated, including one with a friend that was not the result of competitive bidding, were determined to be improper by Smithsonian Office of Contracting. When confronted over one of the contracts, O’Leary “acted surprised that she couldn’t do it.” According to an e-mail she sent later to the contractor, O’Leary was “threatened and embarrassed” when she was told that the deal was “illegal.”

O’Leary was found to have rented limousines frequently, including one that took the Latino center’s board members from the Smithsonian Castle to the National Museum of Natural History. She also sent couriers to fetch items at her home, including wine, medication, a suitcase, a dress, keys and her BlackBerry. O’Leary said in her interview that the costs were justified for business purposes.


O’Leary also repaid the Smithsonian for the cost of moving white plastic furniture to her home in an unusual episode. O’Leary had donated the furniture to the institution and stored it in the Arts and Industries Building. When the dilapidated structure was shut down, she hired movers to cart the furniture back to her home and billed the institution.

The report concluded that O’Leary exceeded per diem rates on 23 out of 24 trips and had charged a total of $26,797 for 20 trips in 2006.

O’Leary traveled frequently to Miami, New York and Los Angeles. “O’Leary was very particular about her lodging, normally insisting that she booked at a Conrad, Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, even if they did not offer a government rate,” the report said, citing sources and documents. “There were also times when O’Leary would refuse to stay at a hotel offering the government rate or a comparable rate.”


The report found that prices of the hotel rooms were often steep because they had been made at the last minute. When an investigator asked why this occurred, O’Leary said her corporate contacts “often don’t realize that we aren’t as flexible in making our travel arrangements as they are.” She then cited cultural differences, saying that the center’s Latino constituency “doesn’t operate in the same time frames everyone else is used to—in many Latin cultures, arrangements are made at the last minute.”