GSA and Secret Service bacchanals are bad for the federal brand

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 19, 2012

There’s a reason they’re tucking away their ID badges for the commute. It’s an awful week to be a federal worker.

First, we’ve got the infamous Las Vegas blowout that masqueraded as a GSA training conference.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

A spa suite, a mind reader, commemorative coins and artisanal cheese plates are all essential training tools for effective management of squat government buildings and procurement of sexy things like staplers, right?

And then we’ve got Mr. Earpiece down in Colombia, who exposed his pals’ night of carousing by trying to pay a Cartagena prostitute just $30 for a night of boom-boom.

He proved that some Secret Service agents can be skeezy and cheap. Dude, just because you’re in Colombia doesn’t mean the sex is worth less than lunch for two at the food-by-the-pound bar.

Anyhow, we can be sure that the hardworking Secret Service guys who are smart enough to protect the leader of the free world and savvy enough to keep sex workers from feeling ripped off aren’t going to remove their dark sunglasses in public anytime soon.

But for federal workers, D.C. is a company town, and there are few things worse when the company’s looking bad than riding Metro at quitting time.

“I just don’t want people giving me the looks, okay?” said a worker who hid her badge but gave herself away with the sneakers on her feet and an insulated lunch sack over her shoulder. “This federal government that everyone’s hearing about this week? That’s not the federal government I know.”

It has been a mix of outrage and bewilderment for most of the workers.

“Vegas? Ha-ha ha-ha,” laughed a longtime federal employee when I asked him whether any of his conferences were held in places like that.

“Try Landover. With finger foods.”

I spent the day hunting federal workers in their super-secret stamping grounds: Federal Center. Federal Triangle. Food carts.

The usual giveaway — an ID badge around the neck — seemed harder to spot, and that’s how I found out that some of the workers are stashing IDs to avoid the conversation I was trying to start with them.

They aren’t allowed to talk officially with the media. But with the promise that their names and agencies wouldn’t be outed, the workers I cornered went off on the General Services Administration bacchanal.

Enemy No. 1 of the badge crowd is Jeffrey E. Neely, a senior regional GSA official who planned the Vegas bash (then posed for a photo in the suite’s spa tub with some wine). He took the nickel when it came time to explain himself before Congress.

“Why doesn’t he just come out and admit what he did was wrong? Now that bothers me,” said one 39-year federal veteran who is pretty ticked that Neely hid behind the Fifth Amendment at the hearing. “He knows it’s wrong, and not fessing up is as bad as what he did.”

Neely knew exactly what he was doing. “I know I’m bad, but as Deb and I often say, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain’t going to last forever,” he wrote about the Vegas trip in an e-mail to a colleague.

“Deb” is a reference to his wife, Deborah Neely, who has come to be known to investigators as — and I’m not making this up — “the first lady of region 9.” Like a monster of the bride who is all up in the wedding planning, she helped organize the $800,000 Vegas conference in 2010 and posted fab snaps of their room party on her Google+ account.

Not grossed out enough? How about reading her white-girl-making-me-cringe e-mail to hubby about a 17 -day, GSA-sponsored trip to the South Pacific that happened to coincide with her “birfday”?

“It’s yo birfday. . . . We gonna pawty like iz yo birfday!” Deborah Neely wrote.

In the Washington drizzle, between drags on her cigarette, one federal manager told me that her work life got jacked up this week because of the Neelys’ exploits.

“I’ve gotta pull all the paperwork for every conference I ever did,” she told me. “I did nothing wrong. [The conferences are] all on budget. And not a budget like they had.”

A woman who recently moved to government work after a life in the private sector said that she and colleagues have to chip in to pay for a water cooler. “I’ve never even seen a bagel at a morning meeting,” she eye-rolled.

The belt-tightening is pretty palpable to most of the office workers who make the federal machine move. They are under a two-year pay-rate freeze while workloads increase and the workforce shrinks. So hearing about lavish parties and shady procurement deals doesn’t sit well with the country’s 1.8 million federal workers.

William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, called it “a slap in the face to all rank-and-file federal employees who have taken cuts to their pay and retirement benefits these past several years in the name of deficit reduction.”

And the GSA scandal stings even more when it is accompanied by a grandstanding, election-year pious parade of members of Congress who probably have been to their fair share of million-dollar bashes.

Top that off with the Cartagena adventures of the Earpiece Squad and it makes for a week as uncomfortable as heading home from work in high heels.

“It’s just one bad apple,” one federal employee told me.

A co-worker replied: “A bad apple? Ha! More than one. I think there are enough in there to make a whole pie!”

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad.

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