Las Vegas conference billed as the exception to the rule
Robert Peck, the cashiered commissioner of the Public Buildings Service at the heart of the scandal over lavish conference spending by the General Services Administration, said Tuesday that he is “deeply troubled and disappointed by the excessive and inappropriate costs” of the October 2010 event in Las Vegas. Peck called the event “an aberration” from proper procedures that involved “fundamental errors of judgment.”
Speaking publicly for the first time as he appeared with a half-dozen other current and past GSA employees at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, Peck was forced to explain his decision to not severely discipline Regional Commissioner Jeff Neely -- the official at the center of the scandal who has invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to not testify. Lawmakers also asked Peck about efforts to comply with year-old demands from the House committee for detailed budget figures on the Public Buildings Service.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, opened the hearing saying the Las Vegas episode warranted review of a “systemic problem with government as a whole.” The American public distrusts government, Denham said, warning that he is “prepared to systematically pull apart GSA [to] see whether GSA is needed at all.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said after 20 years serving on the committee, she was “saddened” by the turn of events because “GSA employees are among the most dedicated and the actions of a few cast shadows over a majority of employees.” She commended GSA Deputy Administrator Susan Brita for playing the role of whistleblower in the scandal, noting Brita is a political appointee of the Obama administration. The Western Region that overspent on the training conference is “essentially an island unto itself,” Norton said. “The behavior is indefensible, but the system designed to uncover that behavior worked.”
Brita, who before joining GSA in February 2011, spent 18 years on the House Transportation panel’s staff, said, “no issue in those 18 years had risen to the level of the spending at the Western Regions conference.”
Peck offered the panel “a personal apology” for the conference actions. “Even though I was not involved, it happened on my watch and I’m not here to shirk responsibility,” he said.
He stressed that his role as PBS commissioner did not involve him in conference planning or contracting with vendors, “unless something is brought to my attention.” The GSA conferences “I have attended are not extravagant,” he said, usually taking place in a federal building with box lunches.
Peck said when he arrived in Las Vegas in October 2010 to give a speech to conference attendees, he was told his large suite cost the government rate and was part of a package of rooms. He then invited several dozen employees for an hour-long evening “meet and greet” in his suite and what he thought would be beer, wine and chips. “I said I’d pay personally,” he told lawmakers, Peck wrote a check for the beer and wine, but said he had no idea that an invoice would later arrive for $1,960.
He said he had since taken steps to cancel other conferences and reduce spending on travel.
On his controversial decision to give Neely a $9,000 bonus and a mild letter of reprimand, Peck said, “I believed it was an appropriate response at that time.” He told lawmakers he no longer believed it was the right approach, knowing what he knows now. Peck said he had discussed with Neely the stories he’d heard that some employees felt they couldn’t challenge Neely’s agenda for fear of retribution. Peck, however, assumed the issues were policy-oriented, and not related to overspending.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told Peck he thought he was blaming too much of the scandal on Neely. Others were skeptical of Peck’s description of the vague reporting relationship between regional commissioners and the PBS commissioner. All agreed regional commissioners at GSA have had great autonomy.
Denham repeatedly attacked Peck for allegedly stonewalling the committee’s requests for administrative costs budgets over past five years, receiving only a one-page form with a top line of budget numbers. “Why are you hiding?” Denham asked.
Peck said while he no longer has access to his files, he thought PBS had responded in February or March, and was “fairly certain such information on the PBS budget is provided as matter of course.”
One area Peck did defend himself on was the $6,300 commemorative coins given out to attendees at the Las Vegas conference. “When I left GSA in 2001, there were no coins given out, and when I came back in 2009, everyone was giving coins,” he said, recalling the practice adopted from the military. He blocked it, saying, “I can give an award with an attaboy or a paper certificate.”
GSA Inspector General Brian Miller at the hearing clarified rules on per diem spending for food at conferences, noting that if hotels offer free food, then employees should not submit expense vouchers. He said the Western Regions conference had a running joke that the way to get free food was to give out employee awards. “But the rule is, the food had to be necessary for the awards event, not the other way around,” he said
Miller described his staff efforts to “turn over every stone” in the Western Region’s since-suspended Hats Off employee awards stores. He said at least 115 iPods were missing, and “so many people had access to that store, we couldn’t tell who stole what.” With help from Apple, his auditors were able to trace one iPod to Neely, after his daughter downloaded some iTunes.
Alison Doone, the chief financial officer at GSA who performed the same job for the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies, said the management structure at GSA is so decentralized that she had virtually no control over happenings in the Western Region. She said efforts to centralize are under way, including new reviews of expenses, monthly budgets and employee relocations.
In addition, Lisa Daniels, an event planner at the Public Buildings Service in Fort Worth, Texas, said she had not prepared testimony but would answer questions. By bipartisan agreement, she was dismissed, and Denham cautioned her to seek legal counsel.