GSA turmoil will live on in congressional hearings

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. Lawrence Jackson/AP

The revelations of spending excesses at a Las Vegas training conference will keep General Services Administration officials in the hot seat in the coming weeks as both chambers of Congress rev up for hearings on the agency’s inspector general report and broader performance issues.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on Tuesday called a spring-break press conference to warn that “the $800,000 Las Vegas junket is only the tip of the iceberg.” He plans a hearing later this month to shift the focus to the “billions of dollars in taxpayer money wasted on vacant and underutilized buildings” that GSA is charged with unloading.

For much of his 14 months heading the panel, Mica has pressed a campaign against “Sitting on our Assets,” some 14,000 federal properties that could be profitably sold to eliminate maintenance costs and help reduce the budget deficit.

“The Las Vegas fiasco is going to demonstrate to the public an example of one agency that has lost control,” Mica said. “The best thing is to put the spotlight and examination on GSA where it belongs and hold them accountable. Imagine someone being in charge of your property and having a party at taxpayer’s expense.”

GSA has “stonewalled,” Mica added, against congressional requests for basic information such as administrative costs and prospectuses on individual properties. “It’s unfortunate that the people’s representatives are denied basic information needed for accountability,” he said.

Mica and colleagues have been seeking additional information on such projects as the Washington’s Old Post Office Building -- which GSA recently sold to Donald Trump -- the empty Cotton Annex in Southwest Washington, and Mica’s own effort to remove the Federal Trade Commission from its longtime headquarters to consolidate space for the National Gallery of Art.

Asked how President Obama handled the GSA firings and the resignation of Administrator Martha Johnson, Mica said, “the good news is no one impeded the inspector general’s work, the information was made public and we were properly alerted.”

Noting his committee had “gotten pretty rough” with GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck -- who was fired Monday -- Mica said it was “unfortunate that some had to lose their jobs on the holiday week, but they must be held accountable. Business as usual at GSA is over.”

In other developments in the GSA ordeal, the vivid details that the conference planners hired a clown and a mind reader, first reported by The Washington Post and not in the inspector general’s report released Monday evening, were confirmed to Government Executive by an administration official who asked to remain unnamed.

Monday was “a sad day for GSA, which is unfortunate given all GSA can do to help with the budget issues with all the agencies,” said Jim Williams, who did three stints at GSA, including serving as acting administrator for the final months of the George W. Bush administration.

Williams noted the conference was organized by four senior executives. “I don’t put the blame on Martha for not having stopped it,” he said. “She’s doing the right thing to protect the president,” he said, referring to Johnson’s resignation.

Now a senior vice president at Daon Inc., Williams questioned whether this conference was needed at all. “It’s always been clear you don’t waste taxpayer money, and anyone would be outraged by the excesses,” he said. “There are benefits to getting people together for training, but it’s not clear there was a need for this one” for 300 employees from only four of GSA’s 11 regions.

Andy McNeill, chief executive officer of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based American Meetings Inc., after reviewing details on the incident, told Government Executive that the $825,000 spent on a three-day event was “way out of scope” for federal conferences, which are heavily scrutinized. “This happens usually every couple of years in our industry, but these ones got caught,” he said.

The overall price seems “a little excessive,” though certain items, such as the hors d’oeuvres, are “industry standard, based on availability,” he said. What the inspector general described as GSA’s bicycle-constructing exercise in team-building “is actually very popular” and training conferences, and the bikes are commonly donated to Boys and Girls Clubs, McNeill said. A similar exercise put on by his group was only about $28,000, he added, as opposed to the $75,000 it cost GSA.

Many private sector corporations are wary of holding conferences in Las Vegas because of the “optics” or appearance, McNeill said. But in a rough economy, conference planners can get good deals there.

Both GSA and the IG’s offices said they would not comment beyond the report. But David Farley, a spokesman for the IG’s office, confirmed that hearings have been discussed with both the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Committees of jurisdiction in both chambers were given previews of the report, Farley said, and the White House had been kept abreast of the investigation since March.

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