While many national parks are struggling under shrinking budgets, one seldom-visited unit is spending freely on antiques, furnishings and consultants, according to documents released yesterday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The First Ladies National Historic Site is operated by a group headed by Mary Regula, wife of Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula, a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee that controls federal agency budgets.

Created in 2000 by legislation shepherded by Rep. Regula and operated under a cooperative agreement with the First Ladies Library Association, a private group chaired by Mrs. Regula, the First Ladies National Historic Site is located in Canton, Ohio. The National Park Service provides the bulk of funding to support the First Ladies NHS, with tax-support for the operation rising each year.

Besides Mrs. Regula, records indicate that two of the Regula daughters also work at the park: Martha acts as the librarian and Jackie has done office work on a part-time basis. The Interior Department Office of Inspector General is conducting an investigation into complaints of nepotism, non-competitive contracting, and other issues but it is unclear if that probe, begun last fall, is progressing or languishing.

Unlike other national parks and historic sites, visitation and budgetary information about the First Ladies NHS is not publicly posted. According to records obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act, visitation at the First Ladies NHS is among the lowest for any national historic site, with annual recorded visitation ranging from 5,321 in FY 2002 to 9,351 in FY 2004. At that rate, each visitor to the First Ladies NHS is costing taxpayers nearly $1,000.

The expenses at the First Ladies NHS include

* More than $100,000 per year in cultural collections in the form of dresses, lamps, and other furnishings associated with former First Ladies;

* Consultant fees to historians. For example, one historian, Carl S. Anthony, received $77,500 during the one-year period from July 2004 to July 2005; and

* Personnel costs that have more than doubled from $159,646 in FY 2002 to $337,288 in FY2004.

In addition, Mrs. Regula is planning an electronic, interactive exhibit, similar to one she has seen at the National Football League Hall of Fame, according to an agency email sent to National Park Service Director Fran Mainella. Other agency documents describe Mrs. Regula as routinely invoking her husband in seeking to have Park Service rules and requests set aside.

Although our First Ladies may be a worthy subject for a historic site, the question is whether these public monies are truly merited or are the product of the real or perceived influence of a powerful legislator, stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to recent Park Service claims that it subjects all park units to objective scorecards and spending analyses. Appearances suggest that certain appropriators can operate their own boutique national parks exempt from protocols and competing priorities.