All feds pay the price for GSA scandal

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 9, 2012

As could have been expected, the scandal about the exorbitant 2010 General Services Administration conference at a gambling casino just outside Las Vegas has become a political football and federal employees are the ones getting tackled.

The latest example is a second video released Monday by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The video, which was played at the conference, shows GSA employees promoting, with signs and song, their energy-saving efforts to “go green.” Among their lyrics, “POTUS wants a press event, a project he can show.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

In any other context, this would be harmless stuff.

But the inspector general’s report on the conference, a gathering that cost more than $822,000 for about 300 people, has rightly ignited a storm of indignation. That storm now makes the benign look malignant.

“Idiots” was the one-word description of the federal employees in the video from someone who posted a comment on YouTube. “Unbelievable how corrupt people can be,” posted another, although there’s not a hint of corruption in the video.


A screen shot of the GSA video shown at the conference. (GSA)

Other viewers, however, indicated Issa may have overplayed his hand with the video. One self-identified conservative said, “I think the shock here is over reach.” Another: “I’m a Republican, and this looks absolutely fine to me.”

One person had this advice: “Geesh people lighten up.”

A different video shown at the conference and released by Issa last week shows a ukulele-playing GSA worker mocking GSA spending. The headline on Issa’s press release: “Federal Worker ‘American Idle’ Uncovered.”

So as a result of the GSA conference, the federal worker is being portrayed as a corrupt, idle idiot. Three top GSA officials lost their jobs because of the conference, including former administrator Martha N. Johnson, even before the report was released. Five others were suspended, including, my colleague Lisa Rein reported Monday, the official who appeared in the ukulele video rewarding the employee who made it.

Workers throughout the government will pay a price, too, and it will continue long after the news releases stop.

One federal employee probably spoke for many in a note posted to our Washington Post story that broke news about the report:

“Unfortunately for those of us in agencies where a. we don’t have money for conferences to begin with, and b. we aren’t even allowed funds to buy coffee when we have on site meetings, the result of the GSA excesses will be increased scrutiny of all travel and training requests. So all of us, honest thrifty agencies included, will have to jump through more hoops and spend more time justifying everything we do.

“Thanks for making life harder for the rest of us govvies, GSA!”

Members of Congress will make life harder for the Obama administration as they rush to beat each other with hearings into the conference scandal. If the White House hoped to quell reaction to the GSA debacle by dumping top agency officials before anyone outside the administration could demand it, those hopes have been dashed.

On Wednesday, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of its public buildings subcommittee, announced an April 19 hearing on “GSA’s squandering of taxpayer dollars.” Not to be outdone, Issa said his committee will hold a hearing on April 16. It has an equally damning title: “GSA’s culture of wasteful spending.”

Democrats in the Senate also are getting in on the action. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) told “Meet the Press” that his Appropriations subcommittee on general government will hold a hearing, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has announced an April 18 hearing on the GSA report.

Certainly, a congressional probe of GSA is warranted, but where was all this congressional oversight before?

Don’t be surprised if Democrats go back beyond the 2010 conference in holding the agency accountable. On Friday, Politico reported that the big jump in GSA conference spending came under the Bush administration. The cost of similar GSA conferences rocketed from $93,000 in 2004 to $323,855 in 2006, a 248 percent increase.

And Republicans who complain that the Obama administration didn’t act quickly enough in dumping GSA officials might be reminded by Democrats that the previous Bush administration didn’t fire Lurita Doan, a former GSA administrator, until 11 months after the Office of Special Counsel called for her ouster for “engaging in the most pernicious of political activity.”

Congressional examination is appropriate, but four hearings is overkill. One casualty almost certainly will be the reputation of the federal workforce.

Read Joe Davidson’s previous columns at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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