An embarrassing week for feds

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 16, 2012

This should be declared federal employee embarrassment week.

Between probes into a General Services Administration conference, planned by one of the organizers to be “over the top,” and Secret Service agents getting caught with Colombian hookers, this is a time when all the talk about dedicated, hard-working civil servants is hard to hear, valid though it remains.

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

Instead, the chatter is about federal employees on the wild.

The House held an unusual Monday hearing to probe the 2010 GSA party in a casino spa hotel just outside Las Vegas. In an unrelated incident, 11 Secret Service agents have been suspended and stripped of their security clearances while the agency examines their partying as they advanced President Obama’s trip to Colombia. The Defense Department also is investigating possible misconduct by military members of the advance team.

Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, says the Secret Service probe of the Colombia incident will be professional and, “I think there is no need for any congressional committee hearings.”

Capitol Hill likely will say otherwise.

But the first mess on the congressional docket belongs to GSA.

Four congressional committees are holding hearings on the Vegas gathering that was the subject of a recent inspector general’s report on excessive spending. Just in case four isn’t enough, one senator has called for yet another hearing. The report resulted in the removal of three top GSA officials and the suspension of five others, including one facing a possible criminal investigation. Three officials have been told to pay back money related to the conference.

The first hearing was held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

One of the suspended officials, Jeff Neely, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. He is the official the inspector general asked the Justice Department to investigate for possible criminal violations.

Refusing to testify might be good legal strategy, but it’s a horrible way to build trust in the federal workforce. That trust probably will be further eroded with three other GSA hearings this week:

Tuesday 8:30 a.m., by the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management.

Wednesday 10 a.m., by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Wednesday 2:30 p.m., by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government.

The titles of the hearings indicate the dominant political party in each chamber.

In the Republican-controlled House, the titles are “Addressing GSA’s Culture of Wasteful Spending,” for the Oversight and Government Reform session, and “GSA’s Squandering of Taxpayer Dollars: A Pattern of Mismanagement, Excess and Waste” for the Tuesday panel.

Democrats controlling the Senate used blander, more straightforward wording: “Oversight hearing on the General Services Administration” for the Wednesday morning hearing and “General Services Administration: A Review of the Recent Inspector General Management Deficiency Report and An Assessment of the Fiscal Year 2013 GSA Funding Request” for the Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Any attempt by Democrats to place the GSA scandal in the context of a big jump in agency conference spending under the Bush administration has been undercut by House Republicans. On April 6, Politico, citing a government source, reported that the costs of similar conferences jumped from $93,000 in 2004 to $323,855 in 2006, a 248 percent increase. But days later, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said the actual cost of the 2004 event was $401,024, meaning costs fell for the 2006 gathering.

On Thursday, Politico said a senior administration official didn’t dispute the committee’s numbers, but added that the official also noted that the cost of the GSA conferences more than doubled from 2006 to 2008.

Issa got it right when he said: “Wasteful spending is a problem that transcends multiple administrations and multiple Congresses, but it’s incumbent on the present administration and the current Congress to mandate a culture that prevents this type of waste and mismanagement, no matter what happened before them.”

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan also got it right when he described the culture he wants to see at his agency in a letter to staffers. “The overwhelming majority of the men and women in the Secret Service live up” to “the very highest levels of professional and ethical” standards “every moment of every day,” he said.

That could apply across the government.

But as Sullivan correctly added, “an ‘overwhelming majority’ is insufficient.”

Staff writers David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this column.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/ JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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