GSA bonuses prompt senator to ask broader questions

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., on Monday released the results of an inquiry showing that the scandal-tarnished General Services Administration paid more than $1 million in bonuses in recent years to employees under investigation by the agency’s inspector general. The findings prompted McCaskill to demand a governmentwide examination of the use of bonuses.

“It doesn’t pass the smell test to be awarding huge bonuses in taxpayer dollars to officials who are being investigated, or have already been found responsible for fraud and waste of those very taxpayer dollars,” said McCaskill, a former state auditor who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Contracting Oversight Subcommittee.

Her staff’s research performed over more than a year shows that since 2008, GSA awarded about $1.1 million in bonuses to 84 individuals who were under investigation for wrongdoing or misconduct, averaging about eight bonus awards each. McCaskill noted the true number could be higher because the study did not factor in bonuses awarded to executives involved in the GSA Public Buildings Service’s controversial 2010 Western Regions Conference, which resulted in departures of multiple GSA officials after the revelations exploded in April.

McCaskill released individual bonus amounts, which over multiple years reached as high as $38,664, on a PDF document.

She also sent a letter, dated May 23, to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry asking for a probe of bonuses at all federal agencies from 2008 to 2011 at the Senior Executive Service and each General Schedule level. “GSA has no policies which would ensure that employees who are under investigation by the inspector general do not receive bonuses,” she wrote. “I am aware that such consultation would raise significant concerns, including the need to keep the ongoing investigations from being compromised. However, Congress and the public rightfully expect that these awards are given only to those employees whose performance is exemplary and whose integrity is unquestioned.”

Former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, just after resigning in April, told a House panel that she had considered and approved a performance bonus for Jeff Neely, the chief organizer of the lavish Western Regions training conference in Las Vegas, on a track separate from the issue of misconduct that she knew the GSA IG was examining.

McCaskill asked OPM for a briefing and a response by June 20.

Also on Monday, the Federal Times published results of an examination of federal bonuses showing GSA to be the most generous federal agency, with 87 percent of employees in 2011 receiving awards averaging $1,200. The second-most generous agency was the Environmental Protection Agency, where 75 percent of employees were given bonuses, according to the study, which used documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Asbury Park Press. The governmentwide average is 32 percent, Federal Times reported.

GSA stresses that the bonus issue is complex because the inspector general does not necessarily alert the agency about individuals under investigation given that they are presumed not guilty until the investigation is complete. The Neely case was an exception. “As previously stated, GSA is conducting a top-down review of our agency’s operations,” GSA spokesman Adam Elkington said in an email to Government Executive. “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.”

McCaskill said she is preparing legislation to “create stronger safeguards against waste at federal agencies and to install new measures for accountability across the federal government.”

In the aftermath of the GSA training conference incident, agency policies on bonuses and terminations also are under review in the House.

In May, Government Executive reported that Neely, who had invoked his Fifth Amendment right to decline to answer questions before Congress, had quietly retired from GSA. In response, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said, “in order to deal with this type of situation in the future, I plan to introduce legislation that will allow the immediate termination of senior-level executives who violate their oaths of office by refusing to cooperate with congressional investigations or to testify before Congress.”

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