WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution should become more open and transparent, but also needs to maintain exceptions to the federal Freedom of Information Act, Secretary G. Wayne Clough said last week after two months as chief executive of the museum complex.
Clough told the Associated Press on Sept. 3 that he opposes an effort in Congress to place the Smithsonian under the government’s public-records law because the museums on the National Mall will have to look beyond the government to pay for programs in the future. Taxpayer money currently covers about 70% of the Smithsonian’s $1 billion budget.
“If the Smithsonian is going to be called upon to do its business in a different way in the future, which we are being asked to do, we’re going to have to raise private funds,” Clough said. “We’re trying to model our policy as close to FOIA as we can with some narrowly cast exceptions.”
The new Smithsonian chief plans to issue a new public-records policy soon, he said. Exceptions to the FOIA law will keep certain information private regarding the Smithsonian’s investments and specific donor negotiations and will help keep its businesses competitive. Clough said it was not necessary for Congress to make the Smithsonian’s open-records policy law.
“Generally speaking, we’re going to look like a FOIA institution,” he said.
The Open and Transparent Smithsonian Act of 2008 (S. 3276), introduced in July by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., would end the Smithsonian’s FOIA exemption. Federal courts have ruled in the past that the Smithsonian was not subject to FOIA disclosures unless Congress made an explicit change because it was not a government agency.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Grassley said compliance with FOIA was critical in changing the Smithsonian’s culture of secrecy.
“The new secretary deserves the best possible chance to succeed,” Grassley said. “One of the best tools Congress can give him is a clear, definitive statement ... that the Smithsonian’s business is the people’s business.”
Clough said he had met with government watchdog groups to shape a new open-records policy, which could include a provision for groups to appeal to a third party if information they seek is denied. The Smithsonian issued a records policy in November, though it did not include an appeal process.
In a September staff newsletter, Clough wrote he was working to rebuild respect and trust after the last Smithsonian chief was forced out amid spending and compensation scandals.
The former president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who grew up in the South, said he had been meeting with curators and scientists, touring each of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and meeting with donors across the country.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “I’ve been thrown in the briar patch, and I’m having a good time.”