The Washington Post

Ripple effects of GSA scandal

Columnist

A marathon set of congressional probes into the General Services Administration scandal concluded with the most consequential committee — the one that controls the money.

The Wednesday afternoon hearing by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government was the last of four this week, and the second Senate session of the day.

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

The others, including two in the House, were oversight hearings, and the sessions demonstrated that Congress is better at outrage and hindsight than oversight.

But greater oversight there will be as a result of a GSA inspector general’s report on the excessive 2010 Western Regions Conference outside Las Vegas. The GSA now is squarely in congressional crosshairs.

And the foolish actions of a handful of GSA employees could have ramifications for workers across the government.

It’s not unusual for Congress to indicate its opposition to an activity by inserting legislative language that says something like: “None of the funds appropriated by this Act shall be available for . . .”

Congress probably won’t replace the ellipsis with “training conferences, employee bonuses and performance awards,” but some limitations are possible.

The first bill to emerge from the GSA scandal, introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), would require agency heads to approve conferences costing more than $200,000. The legislation also would prohibit giving bonuses to employees under investigation by an inspector general or those “who have taken, directed, or supervised actions that led to fraud, waste, or abuse of taxpayer dollars,” according to her news release.

One of the first questions from subcommittee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) concerned a generous bonus given to Jeffrey E. Neely, a senior regional GSA official who was a key figure in planning the conference and one of 10 employees suspended in the wake of the April 2 report by the office of Inspector General Brian D. Miller. Former GSA administrator Martha Johnson and two other top officials were out of their jobs the day the report was released. The Neely bonus was particularly suspect to members of Congress because he received it after Miller had raised questions about spending in the region.

“It was almost a seal of approval,” Durbin said of Neely’s bonus.

Long before the report became public, bonuses and within-grade pay increases for federal workers had come under fire by Republicans who say they weaken the current two-year freeze on basic federal pay rates.

Durbin made no reference to bonuses in general, but the Neely affair certainly doesn’t help those who argue for them to continue.

Other areas that could come under greater scrutiny across the government are training conferences and performance awards. The Vegas gathering was a training conference, at least in part.

Daniel Tangherlini, the GSA’s acting administrator, told congressional panels that he has canceled 35 conferences, including the 2012 Western Regions Conference, saving almost $1 million. He also has canceled “Hats Off,” an employee rewards program that he said was a “gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”

So, does that mean training conferences and employee reward programs are forever toast?

Probably not, but they will be examined more closely, and you can bet managers in many agencies are checking — and maybe cutting back — their programs so they don’t end up as targets for inspector general and congressional investigations.

“We just have to be careful and strike the right balance,” Tangherlini said after the Wednesday morning hearing before the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The Senate hearings were less dramatic than the House sessions, reflecting that the Senate and the White House are controlled by people of the same political party, Democrats. Republicans in the House used the scandal not only as a legitimate subject for investigation but also to ding the administration.

Consider the accusatory tone of the House hearings: “Addressing GSA’s Culture of Wasteful Spending” and “GSA’s Squandering of Taxpayer Dollars: A Pattern of Mismanagement, Excess and Waste.”

Democrats also took a few shots.

“We’re not looking for photo ops of people taking the Fifth,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. She was referring to a House hearing Monday at which Neeley, whose actions were referred to the Justice Department, refused to testify.

Members of both parties in both chambers pressed former and current GSA officials with hard questions that indicate — no matter their political affiliation — they are angry about GSA squandering of taxpayer dollars.

“There must be justice and restitution for this,” Boxer said, “and those who are responsible for the outrageous conduct and who violated the public trust must be held accountable.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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