Smithsonian Inspector General Sprightley Ryan to Join Law School Faculty

October 31, 2011

Many lawyers in Washington, D.C., might spend their days preparing for an appearance on Capitol Hill, conducting a criminal investigation or examining the fairness of financial contracts. As inspector general of the Smithsonian Institution, A. Sprightley Ryan gets to do all of that — and ponder what happened to George Washington's bed.

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A. Sprightly Ryan

Ryan, who will be joining the University of Virginia School of Law in January as an associate professor of law and director of public service in the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, currently leads an independent office that conducts performance audits and investigates crimes at the Smithsonian, which has more than 100 million items in its care.

Ryan's efforts have included ensuring that criminals are prosecuted (one Smithsonian employee wrote almost $100,000 in checks to herself), investigating improper practices such as abuse of expense accounts or travel privileges, and auditing the national collections the Smithsonian holds for the American people to assess security weaknesses and determine what is lost or in poor condition (This year Ryan's office released reports noting that the American History Museum could not account for 10 percent of a sample of its inventory, including a part of George Washington, and that many of the collection's storage facilities are substandard, putting the collections at risk.) (More)

"It's a whole range of issues," she said. "It's a unique institution — it involves arts, culture, history, science. Because I grew up in D.C., I always loved the Smithsonian."

Ryan has devoted much of her career to public service. A Yale University graduate, she attended law school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was editor-in-chief of the Ecology Law Quarterly, and afterwards returned to her hometown to clerk for Judge Joyce Hens Green of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

She stayed in Washington to work for the law firm Beveridge & Diamond on environmental issues and white collar criminal defense, then in 1995 she joined the Department of Justice as a trial attorney prosecuting environmental crimes. During that time she also worked as a special assistant U.S. attorney, working on misdemeanor trials. Ryan later joined the faculty of the College of William & Mary Law School, where she taught legal skills, ethics and brief writing.

In 2003, Ryan joined the Smithsonian as counsel to the inspector general, became assistant inspector general two years later and inspector general in 2007. She reports directly to the Smithsonian's Board of Regents and to Congress.

The issues change every day. From a lawyer's perspective, this is a particularly fascinating place," Ryan said. As a legal entity, it is unique. It doesn't fit in any neat boxes in terms of administrative law, because it's not an agency — it's a trust instrumentality of the government, and has both federal funds and trust funds."

For example, the Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply to the Smithsonian. Three-quarters of the budget is federal, but the remainder comes from trusts and the institution's revenue-raising arm.

There's the question of how to do you handle requests for information?" she said. You have concerns other than those of a normal federal agency, because the Smithsonian conducts fundraising and has retail businesses such as its stores and movie theaters."

Not long after her tenure as inspector general began in 2007, Ryan also oversaw an investigation of then-Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, who ended up resigning over questions about his compensation and expenses. Although Ryan's report found no evidence of abuse or fraud, she wrote in her report that some expenses "might be considered lavish and extravagant."

Ryan's office recently has turned to examining revenue-sharing arrangements with Smithsonian Enterprises, which operates concessions and is responsible for museum shop sales. (More)

Ryan said she hopes to bring her experience in ethical issues to her role as a teacher of Professional Responsibility, a required Law School course focusing on legal ethics and conduct.

I've had to deal with — particularly in the area of conflicts of interest — very real-world examples that highlight how much the world is not black and white," she said. The government ethics rules do not apply at the Smithsonian, because they only apply to agencies and this is not an agency. So the Smithsonian has developed its own ethical rules, and our office has been involved in strengthening those rules in my time here."

Ryan said her work for a variety of public-sector entities also will inform her efforts to help students find public-interest jobs.

"I certainly have experience in the government sector and I know its incredible value, both for those who want to do public service or even those who may not imagine themselves doing public service their whole lives," she said. "It sounds corny, but you really are working for the public good, and there really is little else as professionally satisfying as that."

Ryan said she was excited about joining the Law School faculty.

"It seems like a genuine community of learners and that's a wonderful thing to become a part of."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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