From the start of the House committee hearing into an excessive General Services Administration conference, it was clear that the members of Congress had a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Representatives on the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on public buildings say they had been repeatedly stonewalled in their attempt to get budget figures for the agency’s Public Buildings Service.
Now that section of GSA is at the center of a scandal, revealed in an inspector general’s report, over the 2010 conference that cost almost $823,000 for 300 people at a luxury hotel in a Las Vegas suburb. As a result of the conference, three top administrators are out of their jobs, and the acting GSA administrator told the panel that 10 career employees are on administrative leave.
All of the subcommittee’s built-up anger over the budget was vented through outrage over the spending on the Western Regions Conference.
“Let me just issue a warning,” said subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), his voice booming across the Rayburn House Office Building meeting room. “If this [spending and lack of information] continues to go on . . . I am prepared to systematically pull apart GSA to the point where we will make it a question to the American public on whether GSA is needed at all. But the wasteful spending is going to stop and the transparency is going to begin.”
Any other time, a threat to essentially decimate an agency would be partisan fighting words. But the minimal response from Democrats to Denham’s warning shows how far out of favor GSA has fallen.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, was more low-key than Denham, but clearly upset that “the expensive partying at a four-star casino resort occurred . . . as millions of Americans were living hand to mouth, struggling under debts and the worst recession since the Great Depression.”
Before the grilling of past and present GSA officials got very far, Denham unexpectedly excused Lisa Daniels, a GSA event planner, not long after she swore, along with other witnesses, to tell the truth.
When it was her turn to offer an opening statement, Denham asked if she had a lawyer. Speaking hesitantly, appearing nervous and uncomfortable, she said she did not. Daniels, a 26-year GSA employee, was placed on administrative leave last Wednesday and had no prepared testimony.
“I would just issue you a word of caution,” Denham said, adding that the GSA’s inspector general (IG) had provided “a great deal of troubling information” related to Daniels.
The IG report said that during the Vegas conference “a GSA event planner contacted the M Resort’s catering and conference services manager and said that she ‘cannot live without’ a $98 purse from the hotel’s gift shop, asking whether the manager received a discount and ‘if so, will you help me?’ The manager responded, ‘I can give you a $30 comp,’ which was promptly accepted.”
Out of concern for her constitutional rights, Denham, in consultation with Democrats, excused Daniels without any questions directed to her. “You ought to seek legal counsel,” he told her.
After the more than five-hour hearing, he added: “The e-mails we received last night were alarming, the things she admitted to.”
Denham and other members also were alarmed at an agency that appeared to be so poorly managed. Former administrator Martha Johnson, who along with two other top officials were gone shortly before the IG report was released April 2, said when she took office in February 2010 “a quarter of the executive positions were empty, strategy was non-existent, major customers viewed our partnership askance, labor relations were acrimonious, the information technology infrastructure was inadequate” and on and on and on.
But testimony revealed that two years later, organizational problems remained at the agency. No one could say if the problems of Region 9, which hosted the conference, were an aberration or part of the agency’s culture.
Daniel Tangherlini, acting administrator, said that since he took over April 3, he has consolidated conference oversight in a new Office of Administrative Services.
“To strengthen internal controls, we are bringing in all Public Buildings Service regional budgets under the direct authority of GSA’s chief financial officer,” he added. “The autonomy of regional budget allocations is, in part, what led to this gross misuse of taxpayer funds on both the regional conference and the employee rewards program known as ‘Hats Off.’ ”
These moves will no doubt make a difference. But it will take much more than that to rebuild the image and taxpayer trust in an agency that was out of control.