At the start of his mind-reading act, Bob Garner asked a federal employee for the name of his dead dog. He asked someone else to recall a person close to them who had passed away. Then he shared some of the messages the deceased sent from the other side.
Garner also tied a black blindfold around his eyes and asked the audience to pull out four items from their purses and pockets.
Each time, the self-described mentalist and “motivational speaker with a ‘WOW’ factor” was able to divine the truth. What he couldn’t predict was the outrage his $3,200, expenses-paid poolside gig would cause in Washington after his bill showed up on the General Services Administration’s $823,000 tab from a Las Vegas spending spree.
Garner, 51, has a shock of white hair, a fondness for business suits and pocket squares, and an intuition for what his magic act can bring to corporate America. He’s built a successful business on the meeting and trade-show circuit, where he makes employees feel they’re valued in a bad economy.
“What is a thriver?” he asked a recent trade-show crowd. “A person who is passionate about what it is that they love to do! You are all thrivers. Magnificent, intelligent people with skills others just wish they had!”
But what works in the corporate world does not necessarily fly in the federal government, where taxpayers, not shareholders, have to foot the bill.
Garner’s booking at the sumptuous M Resort Spa Casino off the Las Vegas Strip, where GSA flew him from California in October 2010, has become a head-scratching symbol of a major spending scandal.
“If KPMG or Accenture hired him, it would seem like just a wacky thing,” said Howard Ross, a Silver Spring-based management consultant who focuses on leadership. “When spending in government is a big issue, the optics change.”
The abuses by organizers of the four-day Western Regions conference for 300 workers are catalogued in a year-long investigation that GSA Inspector General Brian D. Miller released last week. Hours before the report was public, Administrator Martha N. Johnson resigned, two of her top deputies were fired and four regional managers were placed on administrative leave pending further action.
GSA, which manages federal buildings and buys government supplies, is now the subject of a Republican investigation into its spending. It didn’t help its already-damaged image late last week when the office of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released an employee-produced video clip joking about the Las Vegas expenses.
The Washington Post obtained Garner’s name from a source familiar with the investigation. Numerous calls to his home and business, Motivative & Communicative Concepts, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., were not returned.
Three current and former GSA employees who saw him perform on the pool deck of the M Hotel described two hours of amusement. Garner mixed humor, mind reading and cheesy magic tricks, drawing a big crowd on the conference’s opening night.
“It was pure entertainment,” said one witness who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conference issue is so sensitive.
Garner offered no motivational message to take back to the office, these observers said. That was provided on the event’s final night by a former NBA player who preached self-confidence and breaking down stereotypes at work.
Garner’s clients include Dillard’s, the department store chain; the Home Depot Foundation; Blue Cross/Blue Shield; IBM and dozens of other companies and trade associations, his Web site says. GSA is listed as the only government customer.
“There were people who were wowed by it,” Anthony Lichtl, a former employee in the San Francisco office, recalled of the show. He described “mostly telepathic kind of stuff.”
“I don’t believe in that stuff to begin with, but it was entertaining,” Lichtl said. Some of his colleagues were uncomfortable. When he returned to work and told them about the show, he felt awkward.
“They were saying, ‘We’re here working and you guys are hanging out with a mentalist?’ ” recalled Lichtl, now a commercial real estate consultant. “People were a little taken aback.”
Motivational speaking has been a fixture in the corporate world for years, born at Fortune 500 companies seeking ways to inspire employees and help the bottom line.
It has slowly become part of federal culture: GSA, for example, has hired the Fairfax-based Steven Gaffney Co. (“Communication Experts Who Get the ‘Unsaid’ Said for Business and Personal Growth”) and another, Momentum Training, which does team building.
Garner’s Web site takes things a step further. “Bob is a recognized expert on the intriguing and mysterious topics of ESP and psychic phenomenon.”
When the motivation message crosses into pure entertainment, things can get sticky.
“We never would have allowed a paid speaker just to come tickle the troops,” said Michael Siskind, a former GSA event planner who left in 2009. “It shouldn’t be just for sheer entertainment. That’s not why we should be traveling.”
Garner brought his magic last June to employees at Santander Consumer USA, a subprime auto financing company based in Dallas. The company offers conventional car loans but specializes in high-interest loans for those already in default. Business is booming, but some new employees were having trouble adjusting to the company culture.
“We told [Garner], our associates are on the phone eight hours a day with irate customers who have defaulted on their loans,” recalled Hortensia Perez, a human resources specialist.
Garner’s appearances at five sites during employee appreciation week were a hit. “We had people in tears,” Perez said. Garner told employees not to let bad vibes from an angry phone call carry into the next one, for example.
The company invited him back to its holiday party.
In a testimonial on Garner’s Web site, the company said his appearances had a “monumental impact” on business, with productivity numbers jumping by 10 to 12 percent.
Garner was also a hit at a Washington Bankers Association trade show in Seattle.
“The buzz among the convention was awesome,” executive vice president Liz Wilson recalled. “‘Wow! Did you talk to that guy?’ people would say. He was awesome. He was very, very good at reading people’s minds.”
Staff writer Timothy R. Smith and researchers Lucy Shackelford and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.