When Martha Johnson thinks back to that Monday in April 2012 when she resigned as head of the General Services Administration, she remembers a day as still as the hands on a broken clock. She had spent the weekend practicing her resignation speech in front of the mirror. She repeated it over and over until her face had memorized how to form the words without twitching. Until her voice could say it without warbling. Until her eyes could stop all that blinking.
Finally it was time. She walked into the 2 p.m. senior staff meeting at the GSA, gave her speech, then immediately walked out the door. She snatched her coat from the closet by the elevator where she had strategically left it. No goodbyes or roundabout routes. It was an exit designed to be faster than tears. When she got outside the building, the gray spring day was cast here and there with clouds. She remembers the stillness.
Two years later, time hasn’t quite started up again.
This is a story about taking the fall in Washington and what happens when the news cycle moves on. When power evaporates and you’re just a 61-year-old without a job.
In October 2010, the GSA hosted a training conference near Las Vegas that cost $823,000 for 300 GSA employees — and rang up all sorts of federal contracting violations. Officials made eight site visits to pick a hotel. Some received swag like custom GSA blackjack dealer vests and commemorative coins. The sushi tab was $7,000. They hired a mind reader.
Having heard talk of what transpired at the event, Johnson and her deputy authorized an internal investigation. They hadn’t been there. It turned out the conference’s planning and spending traced back almost entirely to one career federal employee from the Pacific Rim, regional administrator Jeffrey Neely. He declined to comment for this article.
On the day Johnson resigned, the inspector general of the GSA publicly released its final report. She had seen an earlier version and met with the White House several times to discuss it. This was a nightmare for the administration — a highly embarrassing example of government waste in the spring of an election year. Days before the report’s release, as the political appointee chosen to lead the GSA, Johnson decided to take the fall.
Two weeks later, as Johnson sat before a congressional panel, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) pointed out a disconnect. “You resigned, though your office is the office that actually started this investigation. This would not have come to light unless your office would’ve started it. But as the leader at the top, you resigned,” he said. “And people that were directly there making the decisions, signing onto the warrants, going through these fraudulent contracts, they’re still there.”
Johnson breathed in and rubbed her brow above her glasses. “Yes,” she said. “I have resigned. And yes, I believe they are still there.”
Applying at Whitehouse.gov
Johnson was on the GSA transition team when President Obama took office because she had served as the agency’s chief of staff decades before. When that work ended, she went online to apply.whitehouse.gov and filled out a presidential appointment application, just as any member of the public could do. She attached her résumé and noted her interest in the GSA.
“I remember thinking I’d never get GSA,” Johnson says. “I’ve never done anything political.” Weeks later she got a phone call. The White House wanted to interview her to be administrator. She got off the phone and called her sister, gushing, “I can’t believe it!”
When Johnson was appointed in February 2010, the GSA had gone two years without an administrator and many of its executive positions weren’t filled. She oversaw a $30 billion budget, $500 billion in federal assets and 13,000 employees. It was an organization in disarray.
The GSA essentially serves as property manager for the federal government, which is the largest energy user and building owner in the country. The organization handles leasing and facilities maintenance for other government agencies, as well as supplying much of their IT and telecom equipment. In her short tenure, Johnson modernized several large GSA properties for net-zero energy use, as well as sold off unused buildings.
“Everybody felt that she had done a really good job at GSA,” says a former White House official who was involved in discussions about the resignation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The current administration did not respond to a request for comment on Johnson’s case.
Her departure, the former official says, was largely due to fear of damaging media coverage in an election year. “There was incredible sadness about it, and some sense that this could happen to any of us,” he says. “We know our time could be cut short for reasons unrelated to our performance.”
When Johnson reads news out of Washington today, she sees the political gears churning below the surface. Take Kathleen Sebelius’s resignation after the botched HealthCare.gov rollout. “Oh, I know a lot of what you’re in the middle of,” Johnson thought to herself. “You are caught in the maw of the machine.”
That machine, however, did not swallow Sebelius’s career as abruptly as it did Johnson’s. The former White House official suggested a few fundamental reasons for that. One is that this is the president’s second term, and he isn’t up for reelection. Another is that the confirmation process to replace Sebelius will likely be so politically fraught that it made sense to keep her in place until after the initial rollout of Obamacare. The third is that Sebelius, like Attorney General Eric Holder, who has weathered calls for his termination, has a friendship with the president that translated into greater political cover.
“Are those good enough reasons for Johnson to lose her job?” the official says. “I’m not sure any of this makes sense to me.”
The ‘learning from failure’ talk
Two years after her resignation, you probably can’t picture what she looks like, despite the high-profile collapse of her career. Even her name, Martha Johnson, slips from mind.
On a Tuesday evening, she stands in a fluorescent white room at the law firm Greenberg Traurig in downtown Washington. She has cropped curly brown hair, a bony frame and deep-set green eyes. About 30 alumni from the Princeton Women’s Network sit in swivel chairs as Johnson finishes her talk on “learning from failure.”
She got the gig because she was once the supervisor of Kimberly Ho Schoelen, who coordinates these alumni events, when they both worked at Cummins Engine Company in the 1980s. Johnson isn’t receiving a speaker’s fee. It’s a quiet crowd.
Before they trudge out into the rain, Ho Schoelen says, the women should buy a copy of Johnson’s book, “On My Watch.” On a small table behind Johnson are neat stacks of paperbacks. The only hardcovers that exist are ones she special ordered for family.
Johnson is no David Petraeus with a top position at investment firm KKR after his scandal as director of the CIA, in which his affair with a biographer raised questions of a national security breach. Or Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who wrote a best-selling memoir about his Army career and resignation after disparaging remarks he made about the administration while U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Don’t make her carry all of these back downstairs to her car, Ho Schoelen says as the women start rustling with their coats.
Johnson’s cheeks tighten into a blush.
Her book, part autobiography and part leadership guide, came out in October and never made it to the shelves of any bookstores. There are Washington figures who get large advances to write their memoirs. Not Johnson. She paid a former Yale School of Management classmate, Gail Woodard, to publish her book online and as a special-order title. They reconnected on LinkedIn while Johnson was looking for job leads.
“Sometimes our conversations were less about writing the book, and more about where she needed to get herself psychologically to write the book,” says Woodard, who owns a small publishing company.
Johnson has since marketed the book herself, reaching out to old connections to do talks and signings.
“This is her new life,” Woodard says.
Johnson lives in Annapolis, Md., in a two-story home near the U.S. Naval Academy. Its bright red door peeks out from behind a few high pines set back from the sidewalk. The house is almost paid off, as are the college tuition payments for her two children. Her salary was $165,300 as head of the GSA (about $8,000 less than Jeffrey Neely’s), but it’s been two years since that last paycheck. It’s only her and her husband, Steve, now. He is 10 years older and retired as a labor and education consultant. Many nights they eat in and watch Netflix.
At 61, it’s been difficult for her to figure out what to do next. She has done some contract work with Beltway consulting firms, like LMI, which provide management advice to federal agencies. Mostly, she has talked with them about how government operates and how you build networks. “I don’t want to turn into a lobbyist,” she says.
She can’t expect to work in government again. Join a corporate board? Dave Barram, a former Apple executive who ran the GSA when Johnson was chief of staff during the Clinton administration, appealed to his Silicon Valley contacts and corporate recruiters. When he’d ask them, “They’d say, ‘No. She’s toxic.’ ”
For months after her resignation, Johnson woke up every morning and looked for work. In time, she came to realize that she was the only person who might take a real bet on herself. So that’s what she did. She’s drawn from the savings she and Steve have to publish her book and to build a self-employed career as a management expert. She sees the irony, but being a manager is the only thing she knows.
And as she says, she has nothing left to lose.
“It’s a little bit like a car crash,” she says. “You’re living your life, you’re going strong — and bam.”
Johnson hadn’t attended the regional conference, but her deputy, Susan Brita, started hearing accounts that made her wonder about inappropriate spending there. She asked Johnson if she could flag it for the GSA’s inspector general, a sort of internal auditing bureau whose job it is to look into misconduct and misspending. About six months later, Johnson and her top staff got a preliminary briefing that didn’t look good. Nine months after that, the report was complete.
Johnson had 60 days before the report’s classification went public. So she began talking with the White House. This was the February before her resignation.
In her first meeting, she spoke with then-White House general counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. Several other meetings with the president’s team would follow. No one explicitly asked Johnson to give Obama her resignation, but they didn’t have to, really.
“This was not discussed, but it didn’t take much of a leap to know he’s going to be running against Romney, and Romney is a business guy, and Romney’s going to have a management agenda,” Johnson says. The headlines about lavish Vegas parties would play right into the image of big government and wasteful spending under the Obama administration. The mind reader didn’t help.
On Friday, March 30, Johnson walked into the White House to meet with chief of staff Jack Lew and the head of presidential personnel, Nancy Hogan. It was the last meeting before the report’s release. They began to discuss whether two political appointees beneath Johnson should be fired on Monday, to send a message on the same day the report was to go public.
“It’s not really a logical conversation,” Johnson recalls. “It’s an optics thing.”
She tried to make the case that her deputies Bob Peck and Steve Leeds should be allowed to resign. They weren’t. “That was like a dagger to my heart,” Johnson says. “That changed things for me so deeply.”
That’s when Johnson felt the weight of something unspoken in the room. She had the feeling that letting go of the two appointees beneath her wasn’t enough.
“I said, ‘So should I also put my resignation on the table?’ ”
There was a pause. No one told her to resign. No one told her the damage this mess was going to do to Obama’s campaign. But she felt these things. She felt them in that pause. So Johnson did something she wasn’t at all prepared for when she entered that room — she volunteered her resignation.
She recalls Lew saying she could think about it over the weekend. Johnson remembers seeing buds on the tree by his window and how beautiful it was outside. But in her head were the words “I don’t actually get to think about this, do I?”
It was done.
“I resigned because it was clear in my mind I had lost the support of the White House,” she says. Though the White House declined to comment, one high-ranking official said on background that she was right.
Johnson’s own chief of staff, Michael Robertson, was waiting outside the door. She walked out with him in silence (“I wasn’t going to fall apart in the White House”), and she told him the news as they circled the block. It was cold and they stepped into a Juan Valdez coffee shop near the World Bank, but they didn’t sit there long. Their nerves and shock made them keep moving.
“It was a storm that washed over us,” Johnson says.
Hours later, when she opened her front door and saw her husband, she cried.
Food and condolence cards
The day after her resignation, her house filled with food and condolence cards. Her pastor brought a bottle of wine and a postcard he picked up a long time ago in Rome that shows a man about to fall on his sword. A neighbor brought white hydrangeas flecked with pink.
“It did feel a lot like a funeral, or a wake,” says Sahar Wali, a former GSA communications director who had worked with Johnson and later married her chief of staff. Wali came to help her handle the media. This is what Washington compassion looks like: a former press secretary volunteering to deal with the news truck outside your front door.
Wali spent much of that Tuesday there, deflecting reporters’ phone calls and also just sitting silently with Johnson and her husband in the study, where low light filtered through the pine trees outside the windows. Birds chirped loudly that early spring day. Wali remembers that, too. It felt like dusk.
“There’s this very Washington way of looking at power,” Wali says. “And a lot of these higher-level jobs are viewed as moments of power, places of power, opportunities for power. Martha never looked at it that way.”
Johnson grew up in California and North Dakota, where her father was a Presbyterian minister and her mother was a school teacher. She got a scholarship to Oberlin College. Her career had been peppered with middle and senior management roles in the public and private sector — at the Commerce Department as well as at companies like Cummins Engine and Computer Sciences Corp. The GSA was the first organization she led from the top.
“GSA has always been treated as a downstairs staff,” Johnson says, performing what could be seen as the scut work for other parts of government.
Still, the dark humor escaped no one that the very organization charged with setting government-wide contracting guidelines was caught in a scandal about its violation of the same.
Three days after her resignation, Jon Stewart mocked her on “The Daily Show” in a segment titled “GSA-holes,” joking that Johnson’s yearbook entry read: “Most likely to resign over an event that betrays an almost comical misunderstanding of the agency’s mission.”
Back at home after her resignation, Johnson existed in a sort of twilight. She paid attention to clocks — to the meetings she should be in at any given time, but wasn’t. For as long as she could remember, she had set her alarm for 5 a.m. No need for that anymore, either. She no longer keeps a clock in her bedroom.
“It was as if a child was killed,” Johnson says. “It was just a huge loss and I’m mourning. I said in my congressional hearing I will mourn the loss of this job the rest of my life. What got served up, and what got smashed, and what the possibility was — it deeply saddens me.”
A ‘culture of shame’
Two weeks after her resignation, she testified in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.). Sitting next to her was Jeffrey Neely, who said his attorney advised him to invoke the Fifth Amendment and not answer Congress’s questions. Firing a federal employee is a long and difficult process. As of the hearing, he was on administrative leave but still employed by GSA. Johnson’s team had recommended he be fired, but he eventually retired under civil service laws with a pension and benefits.
“It literally felt like a lashing,” recalls Wali, who was there watching the testimony from the gallery. Before working in communications at the GSA, she had been a staffer on the Hill who helped prepare for such hearings. This was the first time she had witnessed it from the other side. Her former boss, Johnson, was sitting there. “It was probably one of the most helpless moments in my life,” Wali says. “It was a very violating experience.”
The hearing was a long 21 / 2 hours of congressmen expounding on what they found most abhorrent about the scandal. Photographers captured the pink flush of Johnson’s neck and the exhaustion in her face.
“Washington has a culture of shame,” Johnson says later. “GSA was clearly guilty of something, and it needed to cope with its guilt. But the whole drama in Washington turns it into shame. And there’s a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is when you have done something wrong, made a mistake, misstepped, decided badly, broken a rule, and you need to fix that. Shame is when you are bad.”
She still has flashes of sitting behind that table and looking up at those congressmen.
There’s Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), who held up one of the blackjack dealer vests. “Under you, how is it that something like this gets approved for expenditure?” he asked Johnson, displaying the black satin swag to the room.
And Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), who said: “Thank God some of us are here now, because apparently you folks that have made a career out of spending taxpayer money have got some kind of a magic shield where you stay inside this bubble that allows you to do those things without absolutely any, any feeling of wrongdoing.”
And Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), who started his portion with the sentence, “This outrage that we’re hearing today is genuine, and it’s bipartisan.”
Johnson found that hearing to be the hardest part of her resignation, and the last memory she would ever want to relive. Two years later, Issa reflects on the event. “The GSA scandal was in many ways small compared to others,” he says. “Her resignation may have been greater than we needed.”
A question of leadership
Dave Barram, the GSA head in the Clinton administration, says it could have been him. He asked himself whether such a scandal could have happened while he was in office. He concluded, “Of course it could have.”
“If I met the president tomorrow, I think this is the first thing I’d talk about. I’d say, I know it’s in the past, but you did something really wrong, Mr. President,” Barram says. “You took away a really great leader for political protection.”
How great of a leader Johnson was, of course, is subjective. Perhaps she should have had more mechanisms in place to catch or deter misconduct. Or maybe such misdeeds were reasonably beyond her control at an organization that big. She began her short tenure determined to change the GSA’s culture into one that was more innovative and efficient. Yet arguably the biggest cultural shift has taken place afterward, as the chastised agency works to rebuild its ethos and operations.
It was several weeks after her resignation, with the hearing behind her, before Johnson’s composure finally cracked. She was sitting at her computer one day, trying to reply to an e-mail from the Office of Personnel Management. She realized she had lost a document she was supposed to attach.
She started crying. Hysterically. Then she started gasping for air, the sort of panic attack that tears through your body.
“What more do I have to do perfectly to be able to be okay?” she said. “I am just being smothered by this.”
For Johnson, writing books is cathartic. She is creating a purpose out of personal chaos. What happened, however illogical it felt, is forced to fit into a logical structure.
“Being sad is kind of the overarching thing, and then inside it there are these moments when it’s like, what else do they need from me?” Johnson says. “There’s no straight line about how you process these things. You’re feeling fine, you’re moving forward and then suddenly it hits you again. It’s like, awww. That was just such an opportunity, and it’s gone.”
These days, she finds herself telling stories of her time at the GSA over and over again — on the blog she started, in small group talks, on Web radio programs. It was the highlight of her career, and she doesn’t want to let it go.
Patches for a quilt Johnson is making are scattered across her dining room table. A childhood Bible sits nearby on a shelf. It’s red with frayed pages, and when the snow was too high to do her swearing-in at the Capitol in 2010, she had to take the oath by phone as her husband held that Bible for her. They stood in the kitchen, their boots dripping Snowmaggedon snow onto the green-and-white tile floor. She placed her hand over it, and repeated the words she heard over the telephone line. That’s how her job began.
In the drought after her resignation, Johnson started quilting. She also finally learned to swim. She joined the church choir at First Presbyterian in downtown Annapolis.
“People are strong. People are really strong,” Johnson says. “It’s kind of like on the other side of death. I’ve stared into it.”
She finished a novel she had started on her morning bus rides to GSA — it’s about a gay boy who is ostracized from his church and his community in a small Ohio town. She wrote her leadership book. She’s working on another.
“Be generative and creative,” she says, “because it basically tells you you’re alive.”
>See also: Video | Martha Johnson on her resignation