Robert Peck, fired in GSA scandal, has supporters in D.C. real estate world

In the wake of the General Services Administration spending scandal, Capitol Hill lawmakers scrambled to issue caustic news releases and line up hearings. But in the other Washington — particularly among the city’s real estate, development and architecture companies — the news got a different reaction: Did you hear about Bob?

Bob is Robert A. Peck, the GSA’s public buildings commissioner, who was among the officials fired even before the release of an agency inspector general’s report describing how a four-day training conference in Las Vegas cost a whopping $823,000. Peck is expected to speak publicly about the 2010 conference for the first time Tuesday before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Since his dismissal, conflicting portraits of Peck have emerged. One is of a bureaucrat asleep at the wheel while shocking spending occurred. Another is of a dedicated public servant in the mold of his former boss, the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D- N.Y.).

“The Bob Peck that I know is a really ethical guy,” said Linda Rabbitt, chief executive and president of Rand Construction. “He is a really ethical person. He took his job at GSA and his vision of things he wanted to do very seriously. So you know people in the business community and real estate community have a lot of respect for him. This is a hard thing to watch happen.”

Rabbitt, a friend who spoke with Peck briefly after his firing, said that she hadn’t read the inspector general’s report on the conference but that it was hard to believe that a man who she said lives “a very modest life” would condone spending such as $75,000 on a bicycle-assembly demonstration.

Peck, 64, declined to comment for this story. He lives in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of the District, is married to a D.C. public high school teacher and, unlike seemingly everyone in the commercial real estate industry, shuns golf.

“There is nothing about his lifestyle that is lavish,” Rabbitt said. “Nothing. Zero.”

Peck played a major role in the redevelopment of Washington, holding senior positions at the D.C. Preservation League, the National Endowment for the Arts and the firm Jones Lang LaSalle, where he advised companies and governments on real estate. He was in his second stint as GSA public buildings commissioner after holding the post from 1995 to 2001.

While taxpayers have fumed at the cost of the Las Vegas conference at the center of the scandal, some of Peck’s longtime associates said the government overreacted in firing him when he was working to save hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate costs through reductions in space and energy use at federal buildings nationwide.

Michael J. Glosserman, managing partner of the real estate firm JBG Companies, described Peck as a “terrific example of a public servant.”

“It felt like to me that examples needed to be made; it was embarrassing to the government, and heads needed to roll at a very high level, and Bob was a victim,” he said.

Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, said the public buildings commissioner — who is responsible for an annual budget of $8.6 billion, a workforce of 6,700 and a portfolio of more than 9,600 properties — shouldn’t be mired in the details of every conference.

“Rather than, you know, checking the expenditures of every one of the regional offices, of which there are thousands of employees, he was trying to save GSA millions of dollars in the way it procures buildings, the way it builds buildings, the way it leases buildings,” Bradley said.

Peck did not plan the conference, and his name does not appear in the inspector general’s report. He attended the event and agreed to stay in a 2,400-square-foot suite only after being told that it cost the government rate of $99, according to sources who attended the conference and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

During the conference, Peck e-mailed GSA staff members, including Jeff Neely, who approved the event’s budget, to say that he was purchasing wine and beer for “about 80 folks,” according to an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. Peck and other administrators then paid for the beverages out of their own pockets, according to sources familiar with the charges. Neely told the inspector general that money was collected from senior staff members $20 or $40 at a time.

Nearly 300 appetizers, six dozen shrimp and other refreshments were also ordered, at a cost of $1,960, according to a room receipt. In his interview with the inspector general, Neely expressed surprise that the GSA was charged extra for the food beyond the conference’s “master contract.”

“I did not know that. And I can’t imagine Bob knew that,” Neely said, according to a transcript.

Peck later wrote to admonish Neely, calling the conference spending “a managerial lapse which I expect will not be repeated.”

But members of Congress have criticized top GSA administrators for not doing more to prevent the overspending and to punish the conference’s planners once problems emerged. Peck approved a bonus last year for Neely, despite knowing about the inspector general’s investigation, congressional aides said.

Acting Public Buildings Commissioner Linda C. Chero has asked Peck to repay the $1,960 food bill. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has been raising concerns about Peck’s management since 2010 and said in a statement that “the most troubling aspect of Bob Peck’s leadership was his failure to take the work of the Inspector General seriously.”

And not all of his associates in Washington have come to Peck’s defense. Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, declined to comment. “Right now, I just don’t know enough about what all happened,” he said.

That the party in Peck’s suite — far from lavish by the standards of some private-sector real estate fetes — was over the top “probably just never would have occurred to him,” Glosserman said.

“Maybe it should have. Perhaps he was clumsy. But do you fire someone over a $1,900 bill? If that’s the most that Bob is being accused of, then it feels like overkill to me.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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