WASHINGTON – The former director of the National Museum of the American Indian spent more than $250,000 in Smithsonian funds on first-class transportation and luxury hotels over the past four years, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.
During that time, W. Richard West Jr., was away from Washington for 576 days on trips that included speaking engagements, fundraising and work for other nonprofit groups. West recently retired from the director's post, but remains on the payroll until the end of the year.
West's travel often took him far from American Indian culture. There were more than a dozen trips to Paris, and there were also trips to New Zealand, Greece, Indonesia and Singapore.
West said all his trips were approved by supervisors and that part of his job was to be a global emissary for the museum.
"There is no point at which these activities were being carried on in anything but an open way and with the approval of the Smithsonian," he said.
Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, defended West's outreach efforts.
"Under his nearly 18 years of leadership, the museum raised over $155 million for construction, programming, outreach, exhibitions and endowment," Johnson said in a statement to The Associated Press. "I think that record speaks for itself."
Smithsonian officials have been under scrutiny following accusations of spending abuses by Lawrence Small, former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which includes the National Museum of the American Indian. Small resigned last March amid the criticism.
At the time of West's travel, top Smithsonian officials were allowed unlimited leave with pay. That policy has been changed in the wake of Small's resignation.
West, a 64-year-old Harvard University-trained historian and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, was hired in 1989 to oversee planning for the flagship museum. He led a campaign to raise $155 million in private funds, which helped pay for the museum's construction and the Cultural Resources Center.
"I thought his travel would wane once the museum opened, but it didn't," said Ann Ruttle, a former financial specialist at the museum who worked extensively with institutional travel records at the Smithsonian's main office.
Ruttle said she believes West traveled more than any of the Smithsonian's museum directors.
West is on the search committee for Small's replacement.