“Smithsonian IG Found Personal Use Of Resources”
Washington Post, April 10, 2007
An internal Smithsonian investigation concluded in 2003 that top supervisors at the institution’s aeronautical restoration facility in Maryland were using government employees and materials for personal projects, according to legal proceedings last year.
Five employees testified that they and others were asked to do outside work by Tom Alison, the collections chief of the National Air and Space Museum, and Bill D. Reese, restoration supervisor at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland.
The work — referred to as home projects or “homeys” — sometimes would take employees away from museum business for days. Among the items repaired were a Colt .45 handgun, motorcycles, bicycles, a candleholder and antique cars, such as an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite. Jobs were done for friends and colleagues of Alison, Reese and others.
The Smithsonian inspector general’s office investigated and referred allegations of “embezzlement and conversion of public money and property” against Alison and Reese to federal prosecutors, according to the conclusion of a previously unreleased April 2003 inspector general’s memorandum.
The inspector general also found that John R. “Jack” Dailey, the director of the National Air and Space Museum for the last seven years, had a tow bar and a seat latch repaired on his private aircraft by Smithsonian workers. Dailey, 73, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, oversees the museum’s three main branches — on the Mall, at Dulles International Airport and at the Garber facility, which was run by Alison.
Prosecution was declined “in favor of administrative action,” the memo stated. An administrative review resulted in no written disciplinary action, according to testimony from Smithsonian officials. The review was overseen by Sheila Burke, the No. 2 official at the Smithsonian under then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small.
A redacted version of the memo surfaced in September in a U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board hearing on the firing of one of the whistle-blowers who had raised the allegations.
Dailey received a verbal admonishment. A Smithsonian spokeswoman said he also paid $50 to the institution — an amount he estimated to be five times the value of the work done on his airplane. Dailey had hip replacement surgery last month and was unavailable for comment, an Air and Space Museum spokeswoman said.
“I cannot tell you that I know of a more ethical person who is more frugal,” Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said. “This is a minor matter with regards to Jack Dailey. He’s beloved at the institution and very well-respected.”
Alison, 65, a retired Air Force colonel who flew SR-71 spy planes, said in a brief interview that while he might have “technically” violated policy or the law, the case was blown out of proportion. “There was a giant smear that went on,” Alison said. “People were testifying to all sorts of things that were not true.” He retired in 2004.
Reese, 51, denied wrongdoing at the hearing. He retired last year. He did not answer messages left on his cellphone.
Burke’s deputy, John Lapiana, testified that Alison was not disciplined because he was retiring and Reese was spared punishment because “he no longer had supervisory responsibilities.” Burke through a spokeswoman declined a request for an interview.
Robert Johnson, a former criminal investigator for the inspector general’s office, testified last year that there were so many violations that he left some out after finding “enough to support some action by management.”
Reached at his home near Branson, Mo., Johnson said that after he had verbally referred the case to the U.S. attorney’s office, prosecutors “declined the case in exchange for the institution taking some sort of administrative action — with that understanding.”
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said there was no record of the referral, but conceded it might have occurred.
Johnson, who retired two weeks after he wrote the memo, said he stepped down after 16 years because the inspector general’s office had become “politicized.”
“The top people at the Smithsonian didn’t want the office of inspector general looking into what they considered their affairs, period,” he said.
The inspector general’s investigation concluded just nine months before the opening of the first phase of the $314 million Udvar-Hazy annex at Dulles Airport in April 2003. The Smithsonian is currently facing scrutiny over its management and financial practices. Small resigned on March 26 after The Post reported that the institution had paid him $2 million for living and office expenses since 2000. Burke, a former longtime aide to former senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.), is a candidate to replace Small.
The Air and Space Museum is one of the world’s most popular, with three-story galleries in its main building on the Mall and a nearly 350,000-square-foot annex near Dulles International Airport. It includes treasured holdings such as the Apollo 11 command module.
The Garber facility, located on 21 acres in Prince George’s County, is considered one of the world’s foremost shops for restoring historic aircraft. It includes 32 buildings that store artifacts for Air and Space and other museums.
One of those buildings at Garber, No. 10, housed a restoration shop that employed the whistle-blower whose merit board case brought the allegations into the public record. Michael Cross, a 56-year-old Marine veteran who won a Purple Heart in Vietnam, was a museum specialist, working on exhibits such as the Spirit of St. Louis and the 1903 Wright Flyer.
Cross began work in April 2001 after volunteering for a year at Garber. He received outstanding reviews in September 2001 and January 2002, during his one-year probationary period. In February 2002, Cross joined about a dozen other employees who were complaining to the Smithsonian ombudsman about alleged illegal drug use, the presence of unauthorized guns, sexual harassment and outside work.
Cross told The Post he was concerned about the drug use and guns because of his own checkered past. Twenty-three years earlier, he was convicted of possession of four grams of heroin. He later escaped from prison, lived under an alias and was rearrested.
In addition to contacting the ombudsman, Cross also forwarded a copy of one of his complaints to Small.
“We have a situation within our walls that possess crippling potential,” Cross wrote in an e-mail to Small in March 2002.
Five weeks later, on April 12, 2002, Cross was fired by Alison and Dailey, according to hearing testimony. The reason given was that he allegedly was “disruptive” and took too much time off. But the merit board judge ruled that Cross was fired illegally
for his whistle-blowing activities.
The case was a rare victory for a whistle-blower. Only 2 out of 100 cases result in favorable rulings for whistle-blowers, statistics show.
The Smithsonian is appealing. “We do not believe that Gen. Dailey ‘fired a whistle-blower,’ ” St. Thomas said in a written statement.
The judge determined that Cross had a “reasonable belief” that illegal drugs were used and that managers in general and Reese in particular had misused government time, tools and property.
The judge found that Cross failed to show that he had a reasonable belief about other allegations — favoritism, misuse of computers, abuse of hiring practices, unauthorized use of a firearm and the pocketing of money from the sale of scrap metal.
Workers acknowledged the metal recycling, but the cash transactions could not be traced. “The scrap-metal dealers claimed they didn’t have a record,” said Johnson, the inspector general’s investigator. One witness said the proceeds were kept in a “slush fund” to buy tools, as well as food and beer for parties, the memo stated.
Other whistle-blowers filed similar complaints. Bayne Rector, the former safety coordinator at Garber and current Smithsonian disaster preparedness manager, testified that home projects had been performed at Garber since 1977. Rector, 51, testified that the practice increased under Alison.
In an interview from Montana, where he has retired, Alison said: “You’re talking about people who are totally not reliable people to begin with. That’s just crazy.”
In 2003, the inspector general’s office made a brief reference to the case in a semiannual report, noting that “several high-level individuals in the National Air and Space Museum engaged in illegal and unethical acts. Based on our investigation, we concluded that the allegations involving the personal use of Smithsonian property, materials, and labor were substantiated.”
Dailey contended at the merit board hearing that it was Alison’s idea to fix his tow bar at Garber. Dailey was showing Alison his new airplane between 2000 and 2002 when Alison noticed that the plane had a bent tow bar, the device used to maneuver a plane into a hangar.
“I assumed that he was going to repair it himself,” Dailey said. “He had an airplane. He had extensive tools. I said, ‘I don’t want anything inappropriate done here.’ “
When Dailey found out two months later Smithsonian employees had done the repairs, he said he told Alison that was inappropriate.
“Gen. Dailey was horrified when he first learned of the behavior of employees at the Garber facility and took steps to address the problems and prevent them from happening again,” St. Thomas said.
Alison said that the repair, which required a torch and a vise, took about 15 minutes. “It was no big deal,” Alison said. “It was made a big deal.” Cross and two other Garber workers, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, told The Post the work was worth far more than $10 — Dailey’s estimate .
Alison also acknowledged that he and another worker used Smithsonian equipment to work on the engine in Alison’s own plane.
Alison said he wrote a rebuttal to the inspector general’s memo and sent it to the deputy secretary’s office.
Burke’s office considered a range of discipline for the three from reprimand to removal, Lapiana testified. He wrote that the “higher you are, [the] more accountable you are.”
The merit board ordered Cross reinstated. The Smithsonian is paying Cross about $38,000 a year, but it has not allowed him to return to work nor restored his benefits and back pay. Cross now lives in the Florida Keys.
“The government is spending money for him not to come back to work,” said Cross’s attorney, Bryan Schwartz of Nichols Kaster & Anderson. “What Mike Cross wants most is his job back.”
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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