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GSA got the memo, but it was too late


The General Services Administration probably got the memo, just much too late.

The subject of the Sept. 21 directive from Jack Lew, then-director of the Office of Management and Budget: “Eliminating Excess Conference Spending and Promoting Efficiency in Government.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

But 11 months before that, GSA’s public building services office held a conference for
300 people just outside Las Vegas that cost almost $823,000, according to the agency’s inspector general. The location was the Henderson, Nev., M Resort Spa Casino, which declares itself “a fusion of modern architecture and classic glamour.”

Perhaps it was too much glamour for a federal agency tasked with saving taxpayer money. Unfortunately, news of the conference is more ammunition for those who find sport in dumping on federal bureaucrats and generally tarring federal employees in the process.

And it shows that not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

General Services Administration Administrator Martha N. Johnson, right, speaks during a news conference in 2010. (Brendan Smialowski/GETTY IMAGES)

But a quick, strong response by the Obama administration demonstrates that it will not tolerate the conference niceties that would be no big deal in the private sector.

The inspector general’s report cost GSA Administrator Martha N. Johnson and two other top officials their jobs — even before the document was released Monday. Dan Tangherlini, who held the lengthy title of assistant Treasury secretary for management, chief financial officer and chief performance officer, was named acting GSA administrator. He’ll need all the skills implied by his Treasury gigs to set GSA straight.

Now Lew has issued another statement, this one in his role as President Obama’s chief of staff. Obama “was outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors and disregard for taxpayer dollars,” Lew said. “He called for all those responsible to be held fully accountable, given that these actions were irresponsible and entirely inconsistent with the expectations that he has set as president.”

As a result of the report, GSA’s leadership lost Obama’s confidence. Johnson held herself responsible, with no White House argument to the contrary, and quit. Robert A. Peck, the public buildings service boss, and Stephen R. Leeds, Johnson’s senior counselor, were fired. The person who actually organized the conference was placed on leave, along with three other civil servants, pending further disciplinary action. That means those people could be fired as soon as regulations allow.

This is a huge shake-up for the GSA, which is supposed to show the way.

“As the agency Congress has entrusted with developing the rules followed by other federal agencies for conferences, GSA has a special responsibility to set an example, and that did not occur here,” says the report by Inspector General Brian D. Miller.

The title of his probe, “Management Deficiency Report,” sums up why Johnson and the others had to go. But the bland title gives no hint to the juicy details.

●Commemorative coins distributed at a reception can’t be “justified as either an award ceremony or light refreshments, based either on the nature of the event or the amount spent — over $100 per person.”

■One “questionable” expense was a $120 birthday cake at a conference planning session.

■“GSA spending on conference planning was excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible,” according to the report. For example, six planning meetings took place at the M Resort.

■As part of the conference, the GSA awarded a “$58,000 contract to a large business in violation of small-business setasides.”

■The GSA provided “free rooms to a contractor’s employees even though the contract cost included lodging.”

■The inspector general said the probe demonstrated that the goal of conference planners “was not to minimize costs, but to be ‘over the top,’ ” in the words of a GSA regional official quoted in the report. That included, according to an administration source, spending on a clown, a comedian and a mind reader. About $7,000 was spent on sushi.

Instead of a mind reader, GSA officials should have hired a fortune teller, who could have warned them of the trouble they were courting with excessive spending. Some of the lower-level workers could have provided that warning, too.

Because the official — identified as the “Region 9 Commissioner/Acting Regional Administrator” — instructed conference planners to make the event “bigger and better than previous conferences,” according to the IG, “several suggestions by regional employees that costs be reined in were ignored.”

The report does not indicate how much, if anything, Johnson knew in advance about the conference. She had been considered a good administrator.

“Martha Johnson has been an effective public servant for many years,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership of Public Service, which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post. “Her work has helped deliver important services for the government and taxpayers. I’m sorry to see this incident mar what I have every reason to believe has been an otherwise terrific record.”

A GSA employee who did not want to be named was to the point: “She was a great people person. She would always talk to you in the elevator.”

Not anymore.

Staff writers Eric Yoder, Lisa Rein, Timothy R. Smith and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this column.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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