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Smithsonian chief gets probation for unlawful feathers

The head of the Smithsonian Institution pleaded guilty Friday to possessing feathers from endangered birds and was placed on two years' probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.

Lawrence Small was charged with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act because a collection of South American headdresses and masks he purchased before becoming Smithsonian secretary included feathers from endangered birds.

"I was unaware such conduct was prohibited," said Small, who purchased the collection for $400,000 from a woman in North Carolina in 1998. Investigators learned of the illegal feathers when someone complained.

Typically, museums and researchers are allowed to have items that include material from endangered species under special permits issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"He did not make the connection that museums can do this, but individuals can't," defense lawyer Judah Best told U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle.

Before he sentenced Small, the judge asked numerous questions that indicated he wasn't sure a crime had been committed. But both defense and prosecution insisted that the plea agreement be honored.

Boyle modified the agreement, however, striking requirements that Small make speeches about endangered species and post a letter of apology on the Smithsonian Internet site. He said those items weren't appropriate, but did order Small to send his letter to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and National Geographic magazine.

Small, 62, a former Citicorp executive and former president of housing finance giant Fannie Mae, spent $1-million to create a gallery in a Washington condo for the collection, which contained about 1,000 pieces. Best said Small's interest in Amazonian artifacts began with his trips to Brazil on business for Citicorp.

About 15 pieces of the collection were on display in court, including items with feathers from the endangered great egret, wood stork, crested caracara, harpy eagle, jabiru, roseate spoonbill and hyacinth macaws.

Small, in the two-page letter that was filed with the plea agreement, said he hired lawyers to draft the sale agreement but no effort was made to check legality of the items.

This week, the Smithsonian Board of Regents said the case didn't impair Small's ability to run the Smithsonian, which he has headed since January 2000.