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GSA’s ethics program approved just days after scandal-plagued conference

By Timothy R. Smith,

Three days after a scandal-plagued 2010 Las Vegas conference for employees of the General Services Administration, the president’s Office of Government Ethics gave a clean bill of health to the GSA’s ethics program.

The approval was based on an examination of the agency’s financial disclosure procedures and ethics training and advising processes between 2008 and 2009.

“GSA’s ethics program appears to be effectively administered and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies,” Patricia Zemple, associate director of the OGE’s program review division, wrote in a Nov. 2, 2010, letter to then-GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and Inspector General Brian Miller.

The letter and other documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Cause of Action, a nonpartisan government oversight group.

“Specifically, we found that the [ethics] program was meeting the objectives for each of the required elements: financial disclosure, training, and advice and counseling. In addition, GSA’s ethics program has been enhanced by employing a number of what OGE considers to be model practices,” according to the OGE report.

In January 2010, Leigh Snyder, an ethics expert on Zemple’s staff, raised concerns over the GSA’s history of controlling conflicts of interest, according to the FOIA documents.

Snyder cited a high agency official’s involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and with former administrator Lurita Doan, who resigned in 2008 amid questionable contracting practices.

“GSA’s mission and history of high-profile ethics violations make it susceptible to heightened public scrutiny,” Snyder wrote in the memo. “As such, GSA’s ethics program should be regularly reviewed to ensure it runs effectively.”

This spring, Miller released a scathing report on waste and abuse in relation to the Las Vegas conference, which cost more than $800,000. The Justice Department also is investigating.

“It is peculiar that Patricia Zemple ignored her ethics officer’s memorandum,” said Daniel Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action. “Somehow that ethics officer found problems. Inspector General Brian Miller found problems. But no one else at GSA or OGE found problems.”

On Aug. 2, Epstein sent a letter to President Obama asking that the Office of Management and Budget review the possibility of transferring ethics oversight duties to the agency inspectors general.

The OGE challenged Epstein’s assessment.

“The COA memorandum reflects a lack of understanding of OGE’s authorities and mission,” said an OGE representative in an e-mail response. “Laws and regulations regarding appropriations, travel, personnel, and government contracts are administered by a variety of agencies and are outside OGE’s purview. OGE is not an investigatory agency, but routinely works closely with Inspectors General.”

Epstein noted that for nearly three years, from 2007 to 2010, the GSA did not have a designated ethics officer. The alternate officer, who was meant to be a backstop, dedicated 25 percent of her time to the work, rather than the 50 percent that the OGE advises, according to Snyder’s memo.

After the GSA inspector general issued his final report to Johnson, she wrote in a memorandum to him that the agency would examine issues of employee ethics.

The GSA declined to comment, saying Cause of Actions findings were aimed specifically at OGE policies.

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