Too (Much) to Tango?

By Al Kamen
Friday, July 17, 2009

Arecent invitation on the Social Security Administration's Region 9 Web site asked officials to attend a management training forum "to be held at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix on July 7-9, 2009." "We're looking forward to having 700 management staff from all parts of the region," which includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Pago Pago and the Mariana Islands.

"Our theme of 'Management Tango' centers on our managers who face challenges of every kind as they work to do SSA's business," the invite said. "They exercise their creativity, their strength of character and their grace under fire as they overcome these challenges. They tango. With passion for the job and learned techniques, they move from one challenge to the next. Tango is a way of life."

Well, maybe not for everyone. The American Federation of Government Employees, not familiar with the Argentine pastime, estimated the gathering -- which it said included receptions, door prizes, skits, a dance troupe, a lunchtime comedian and a trip to a casino -- cost $750,000, not including salaries. That, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the union's field office local, was a "callous waste of money when video conferencing is available."

He said SSA had recently installed a "state-of-the-art" interactive video system for training new and newly promoted employees. "These employees sit in an office and watch on IVT while trainers instruct them from remote locations," Skwierczynski said. "Apparently the folks who run SSA feel" that's fine for lower-level employees but "managers deserve the amenities of the Arizona Biltmore when they get instruction."

Off the mark, said SSA spokesman Mark Lassiter. "It was not feasible to use" the video training for the management conference, he wrote in an e-mail, and the event cost an estimated $671,000 for 675 attendees. Despite "sensationalized" accounts, Lassiter said, there was much substantive training provided and the Biltmore, though an exceptionally tony hotel, came in with a best nightly rate of only $85.51 per room.

So Much for Neutrality

World Radio Switzerland (that's WRS 88.4 on your FM dial for folks in Geneva) reported this week that Libya's leader and our new ally, Moammar Gaddafi, has accused Switzerland of funding international terrorism. A serious charge indeed, especially from someone who's an expert on the subject.

WRS noted that Wednesday marked the first anniversary of the arrest of Gaddafi's son and daughter-in-law in Geneva on charges of assaulting two servants. Naturally, "relations between the two countries have been strained since."

Gaddafi made the statements during the recent Group of Eight summit in Italy, but they went largely unnoticed, WRS reported. Now, media in Arab countries are picking up on the comments. Gaddafi said that Switzerland is giving bank accounts to "sponsors of terrorism."

Another Swiss radio station is reporting that Gaddafi had contemplated proposing to the U.N. General Assembly in New York that Switzerland be dismantled, with the French-speaking part going to France, the German-speaking part to Germany and the Italian-speaking part to Italy.

A great idea, but Washington would never go for it. The breakup would mean more skiing medals for the French and Germans at the Winter Olympics, which could hurt the United States in the overall medal standings.

When to 'Hold' 'Em

Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) has placed a "hold" on Robert Perciasepe's nomination to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, demanding that the EPA re-analyze a controversial climate bill.

Voinovich announced the hold -- a common practice for minority-party senators seeking leverage over a Cabinet department -- in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

He said he had no objections to Perciasepe, the chief operating officer of the Audubon Society. But he wants the EPA to alter its analysis of a bill, aiming to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, that passed the House in June

The EPA analysis said the legislation would cost each household $80 to $111 per year. In his letter, Voinovich said he thinks EPA made overly optimistic assumptions about the future. With more realistic projections fed into the analysis, a Voinovich spokeswoman told our colleague David A. Fahrenthold, the cost is likely to go up.

A Hostile Situation

Not often there's a ruckus at something like a joint conference on Iran sponsored by the U.S. Central Command and the Brookings Institution. And even rarer to see the normally unflappable and courteous Gen. David H. Petraeus, the guy who turned around Iraq, lose his usual cool.

But Wednesday, just as the morning session was beginning, attendees were stunned to see a red-faced Petraeus, furious about a Washington Times article that morning, scolding the writer, Assistant Managing Editor Barbara Slavin. (The article said that some Iranians, released after being detained by U.S forces in Iraq for more than two years, had been in effect held "hostage.")

Everyone could hear him lecture Slavin about irresponsible journalism, questioning her sources and saying the article was factually wrong and so on. An unflappable Slavin insisted that her sources were rock-solid and suggested that, if he had a problem, he could come to an editorial board meeting any time.

New Personnel Person

Word is that Nancy D. Hogan, chief of staff for the presidential personnel office, is picking up new best friends all over the country these days. She's replacing Donald Gips as director of the office, a critical but grueling and thankless job that often has a high turnover.

In this case, Gips vacated after less than six months, opting to take a posting as ambassador to South Africa. The job is, as one office veteran put it, "a constant jigsaw puzzle, constantly poring over lists" of candidates, trying to please multiple constituencies and inevitably saying "no" to applicants many more times than saying "yes."

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