By Charles S. Clark
May 23, 2012
News media inquiries have ferreted out more details on performance awards given to General Services Administration executives at a time when top GSA leaders already were aware of what would become an explosive inspector general’s report on lavish spending at a 2010 training conference in Las Vegas.
WUSA-TV, a Washington CBS affiliate, on broadcast published results of an investigation and Freedom of Information Act request that found 67 GSA executives at the end of 2011 had received bonuses of about $10,000, and five of them were involved with the $820,000 Western Regions Conference that triggered the scandal. Working along the same lines, the Asbury Park Press, which, like the TV station, is owned by Gannett, filed its own FOIA request with the Office of Personnel Management to obtain governmentwide salary and bonus data, which it used to create a searchable database of salary information.
There are discrepancies, however, between the GSA and OPM data on the amounts awarded -- varying by as much as $13,000 -- and some awards were reported from one federal source but didn’t show up in the other. Neither agency nor the White House could shed light on why.
According to WUSA-TV and a related Federal Times report, performance awards for 2011 went to the following five executives who had some involvement with the Western Regions conference, who are on administrative leave:
Neely, considered the main force behind of the training conference, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights at an April congressional hearing on the GSA ordeal. But his $9,460 bonus became the subject of an exchange with lawmakers, and former GSA administrator Martha Johnson explained why she and fired PBS Commissioner Robert Peck overruled a recommendation that Neely not be awarded a bonus.
Prouty, who was acting GSA administrator in the months before Johnson was sworn in, received a 2010 performance award of $35,940, according to the Asbury Park Press’ database.
Foley, who attended the Las Vegas conference and gave a humorous speech later circulated on video, apologized at the April congressional hearing for not giving a more serious talk about GSA’s mission of efficient government.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., asked by Government Executive on Wednesday for comment on the bonuses, said, “this is offensive to the taxpayer and cannot be tolerated.”
GSA Deputy Press Secretary Adam Elkington said in an email: “As previously stated, GSA is conducting a top-to-bottom review of our agency’s operations. This comprehensive review of our agency operations includes all bonus payouts in recent years -- especially for those individuals under investigation by GSA’s inspector general.”
Jim Williams, who did three stints at GSA, including serving as acting administrator for the final months of the George W. Bush administration, said, “to give performance awards to four regional commissioners when they knew about the IG report reflects an incredible lack of judgment. I find it incredible they got anything, especially Neely.”
Williams, currently a senior vice president at Daon Inc., a provider of identity verification software, noted, “since the economy fell, the level of senior executive bonuses has fallen, and [Senior Executive Service] people have to share the same pain as the American people.” But in good times, a $20,000 performance reward is not unusual, though Prouty’s 2010 award topping $30,000 seems high, nearly on par with Presidential Rank awards, he added.
Still, Williams said, if an agency review board recommends an award, that doesn’t mean the agency head has to follow it, as Johnson apparently did in Neely’s case. “I’m sorry, but I’d say Neely’s general performance was overshadowed” by what went on at the training conference, Williams said.
Bill Bransford, general counsel for the Senior Executives Association, told Government Executive that Johnson’s decision to give Neely a performance award made sense at the time, though he doesn’t know details of Neely’s performance. Noting the inspector general had asked GSA leaders not to take any action until their investigation was complete, Bransford said, “if someone gets in trouble but is otherwise doing a very good job, then I would interpret that and do what I would have done if there were no IG investigation, and if everything else falls into place, he gets an award.”
The WUSA report makes much of the fact that the $500,000 given out to 67 GSA executives was bunched into awards around $10,000, or 5 percent to 6 percent of their position’s aggregate salaries. Bransford said that’s because the Office of Management and Budget, as part of the pay freeze announced in 2011, had capped awards at 5 percent of payroll, but 20 percent was actually common. By statute, SES performance awards are part of the compensation system, and by lowering the caps OMB forced agencies to choose amounts that allowed a greater number of executives to receive some form of award.
Bransford also said PBS Deputy Commissioner Foley’s attempt at satire in his speech at the conference “should be looked at in context. He was an invited guest and was demonstrating some leadership to 300 people to try to build morale and esprit. What did he do wrong?” he asked. There was no executive order from President Obama on cost cutting at conferences in October 2010, Bransford added, and Foley’s satire looked different from how it looks today.
By Charles S. Clark
May 23, 2012