Former GSA public buildings chief calls conference scandal fallout unfair
The departure of top officials of the General Services Administration under a cloud on Monday shows “why people with good reputations don’t want to work in government,” said F. Joseph Moravec, who was commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service from 2001 to 2005 under the George W. Bush administration.
Moravec said the documented excesses of the GSA’s Public Buildings Service 2010 regional training conference in Las Vegas were an “aberration,” and called the officials who resigned or were fired or placed on leave as a result “first-class public servants and patriotic Americans.”
The GSA inspector general’s office on Monday night released a report detailing lavish spending on the Western Regional conference that earlier in the day had prompted the resignation of Administrator Martha Johnson, the firing of public buildings commissioner Robert Peck and senior adviser Stephen Leeds, and the placement of four regional commissioners on administrative leave.
The IG had conducted a lengthy probe after the GSA deputy administrator, Susan Brita, requested that it “investigate allegations of possible excessive expenditures and employee misconduct” in planning the biannual conference, which has been held since the early 1990s. The October 2010 four-day event for 300 GSA employees, preparations for which began in February 2009, cost an unusual $822,751 and featured a clown, a mind reader a bicycle-building training exercise, as well as catering the IG characterized as excessive.
“I’m not condoning this ridiculous bash,” said Moravec, who is now a managing director in the Washington office of Easterly Partners Real Estate Advisors. But tarnishing officials’ reputations “could happen to any high-level appointee at any agency at any time. The government, like any large organization, doesn’t have enough broad accountability, and it wastes money,” he said. “So if you want to embarrass someone and you know how to pull the levers, you can do it.”
Noting the quick reaction on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers plan hearings targeting GSA waste, Moravec said, “It’s witch-hunting time, with lawmakers reading stuff into the record that makes them sound like caretakers of the public fisc. It’s predictable.”
What makes the situation tough is “no one in government likes GSA because they’re always telling them they can’t do things,” he added.
The fact that Johnson gave President Obama her resignation “reflects wonderfully on her character” since she apparently did nothing wrong, Moravec said. “Political appointees are there to serve not only their country but the president, so resigning is the correct and honorable thing to do if the president is extremely displeased.” He said Americans should take a page from the Japanese culture in which the head of an organization takes the blame when something goes wrong.
Moravec also defended the long-standing public service of the four suspended regional administrators: Denver-based Paul Prouty; Auburn, Wash.-based Robin Graf; Fort Worth-based Jim Weller and San Francisco-based Jeff Neely, though he characterized Neely, the infamous conference’s chief organizer, as a man who “likes to party, who has a wild side.” These people “whose careers are probably over don’t deserve it,” Moravec said.
But he reserved his strongest language in defense of Peck, his friend and both his successor and his predecessor in the top buildings service job. Peck, he said, has the “utmost integrity and unimpeachable probity.”
Moravec said Peck, a former Green Beret and longtime top aide to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., is “a public servant at heart.” Peck’s agenda at the buildings service was to bring in private sector management ideas on customer service, resource allocation and economies of scale. He also sought to make employees feel empowered to do the job, to promote good morale and to take bold initiative in a bureaucracy designed for deference to rules. “That was the culture he encouraged,” Moravec said. “But now people will hear his name and say, ‘isn’t that the guy who . . . ’ He doesn’t deserve it.”
The Public Buildings Service is a “big commercial real estate operation embedded in the federal government with a portfolio of 375 million square feet. By and large it does a pretty good job,” Moravec added. He said the commissioner is “not a CEO. Once the money is appropriated by Congress, it is released to the 11 regions, so he loses control. The power to determine how it is spent is vested in regional commissioners.
In the episode that led to the scandal, all the hotel reservations and planning trips were conducted before Peck was even in government, Moravec noted. So even if Peck knew of the lavish spending, cancellation costs as spelled out in contracts might have cost the government $300,000, which would have been forfeited for nothing, he said.
“It’s unfortunate that Bob attended a private party in his suite, but it’s part of his job to be part of the bureaucracy,” Moravec said.
Years before Peck or Moravec worked at GSA, the agency had developed a culture in which the desire to reward initiative and performance might include an off-site party, Moravec said. “You can’t call it a morale-builder because of the rules,” but it’s an effort to “reward people in government who feel they’re paid less than the private sector and who live in a constrained bureaucracy and rarely get rewarded.”
Moravec was dismissive of the uproar over the $6,325 that conference planners spent to produce commemorative coins for the event. “This happens at all agencies, and it [originated at] the Defense Department,” he said. “All base commanders give them out as a cultural gesture of respect and appreciation and all colonels have a drawer full of them.”
Asked who might be confirmed as the next GSA administrator in this election year, Moravec said he had no inside information but praised the new acting administrator, Dan Tangherlini, the former assistant secretary at the Treasury Department and former city administrator for the District of Columbia. “The good news from a citizen’s point of view is that the White House has recognized the importance of GSA to the performance of the government,” Moravec said, “and is filling the job with someone trusted and who is a demonstrated brilliant public administrator.”