Each time, the self-described mentalist and “motivational speaker with a ‘WOW’ factor” was able to divine the truth. What he couldn’t predict was the outrage his $3,200, expenses-paid poolside gig would cause in Washington after his bill showed up on the General Services Administration’s $823,000 tab from a Las Vegas spending spree.
Garner, 51, has a shock of white hair, a fondness for business suits and pocket squares, and an intuition for what his magic act can bring to corporate America. He’s built a successful business on the meeting and trade-show circuit, where he makes employees feel they’re valued in a bad economy.
“What is a thriver?” he asked a recent trade-show crowd. “A person who is passionate about what it is that they love to do! You are all thrivers. Magnificent, intelligent people with skills others just wish they had!”
But what works in the corporate world does not necessarily fly in the federal government, where taxpayers, not shareholders, have to foot the bill.
Garner’s booking at the sumptuous M Resort Spa Casino off the Las Vegas Strip, where GSA flew him from California in October 2010, has become a head-scratching symbol of a major spending scandal.
“If KPMG or Accenture hired him, it would seem like just a wacky thing,” said Howard Ross, a Silver Spring-based management consultant who focuses on leadership. “When spending in government is a big issue, the optics change.”
‘It was pure entertainment’
The abuses by organizers of the four-day Western Regions conference for 300 workers are catalogued in a year-long investigation that GSA Inspector General Brian D. Miller released last week. Hours before the report was public, Administrator Martha N. Johnson resigned, two of her top deputies were fired and four regional managers were placed on administrative leave pending further action.
GSA, which manages federal buildings and buys government supplies, is now the subject of a Republican investigation into its spending. It didn’t help its already-damaged image late last week when the office of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released an employee-produced video clip joking about the Las Vegas expenses.
The Washington Post obtained Garner’s name from a source familiar with the investigation. Numerous calls to his home and business, Motivative & Communicative Concepts, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., were not returned.
Three current and former GSA employees who saw him perform on the pool deck of the M Hotel described two hours of amusement. Garner mixed humor, mind reading and cheesy magic tricks, drawing a big crowd on the conference’s opening night.