Small Favors

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Larry Small is in trouble again. A page one Washington Post story details some of the expenses he has put in for as Secretary of the Smithsonian (the top job at the world’s largest museum). Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Small’s nemesis in this drama, has escalated his accusation from “champagne lifestyle” to “Dom Perignon lifestyle.” I don’t know why Small needed to spend $48,000 for two chairs in his Smithsonian office, or $2,525 to clean a chandelier in his home (for which he billed the Smithsonian half, under an agreement whereby they don’t supply a house for him, as is customary for his job, but they share the expenses on the house he owns and lives in).

I suspect that this morning Small himself may be having a hard time remembering why he wanted those *&@^#*!! chairs. Furthermore, I tread cautiously because the only reason I even know Small or anything about his business is in my role as trailing spouse to my wife, Patty Stonesifer, who is a Smithsonian Regent. But there is one small fact that deserves more attention.

That is: Small has contributed more than half a million dollars of his own money to the Smithsonian since he has become Secretary. (He got rich as an executive of Fannie Mae, the troubled and conceptually dubious housing finance pseudo-company, but that’s another rip-off.) In the previous chapter of this saga, Small was found to have accumulated $90,000 in unauthorized expenses. Suppose the latest findings double that. He’ll still be about a third of a million dollars in the hole. If his purpose has been to siphon money from the Smithsonian into his own pocket, he’s gone about it in a very odd way. If he’d been a little less generous, bought those damned chairs with his own money and donated them to the Smithsonian, he’d be in the clear and a hero today.

The Post story is very snarky. It puts Grassley’s irresistable “Dom Perignon” quote in the lead, and uses bludgeon irony to contrast a repair of the roof at Small’s home with reports of deteriorating roofs at the Smithsonian museums. But the crucial datum about Small’s personal cash contributions is buried in a long compound sentence in a quote from another Regent. You people in the press! (As my wife likes to say….)

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