GSA Appeals Official’s Reinstatement, But Restores His Pay

Flickr user anujbiyani

The General Services Administration late Monday announced it is appealing an administrative judge’s March ruling reversing the agency’s year-old decision to remove Paul Prouty as a regional commissioner of the scandal-tarnished Public Buildings Service.

Acting just before an April 15 deadline, GSA agreed to return Prouty to the position he lost with other top officials after disclosure of overspending by the PBS at a 2010 training conference held in Las Vegas. Though Prouty, who lives in Denver, Colo., will regain full back pay and benefits while the appeal proceeds, he will be placed on administrative leave due to a determination that his presence in the workplace would be “unduly disruptive to the work environment,” according to GSA.

“GSA has taken strong action against those officials whom we believe were responsible and will continue to do so where appropriate,” said GSA spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. “Over the past year, the agency has saved nearly $30 million in conference and travel spending as a result of strict internal reforms and oversight.”

Through his attorney, Bill Bransford, Prouty declined to comment while the case continues, and has 25 days to respond to GSA’s new decision.

On March 13, Merit Systems Protection Board judge Patricia Miller ruled that Prouty, a 41-year GSA veteran, had been wrongfully dismissed during fallout from an inspector general’s report on an $820,000 conference held for some 300 Western Region employees. The conference was orchestrated by Jeff Neely, a regional commissioner based in Sacramento, Calif., who was subsequently fired.

The embarrassing event was captured on video and featured lavish receptions, commemorative coins, a bicycle assembly drill as a team-building exercise, as well as eight staff trips to Las Vegas to plan the event.

Also forced out were GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and PBS Chief Robert Peck, as well as Portland, Ore.-based Commissioner Robin Graff, Fort Worth, Texas-based Commissioner James Weller and others. Hundreds who attended the Las Vegas event received letters of reprimand. President Obama appointed Dan Tangherlini to serve as acting GSA administrator and begin an effort to restore the agency’s image.

In her reversal of Prouty’s firing, the judge noted that conference “travel and budget authorities were delegated to the regions, which had assigned to them two levels of Senior Executive Service supervisors…. Given the appellant’s higher level in the supervisory chain of command, he had no reason to know the details of the meetings and travel activities,” she said. The agency, she ruled, had failed to establish that Prouty “actually directed or had knowledge of and acquiesced in the misconduct alleged by the agency.”

On the question of who approved creation of coins as employee awards, the judge concluded that the GSA had failed to provide sufficient evidence that Prouty was responsible. “As sworn statements, the testimonies of the appellant, Weller and Graff are entitled to greater probative weight than the summary, unsworn, hearsay conclusions submitted in the OIG report,” she wrote. “Therefore, I find the coins were issued as recognition of the employees’ performance and were not merely impermissible mementos.”

GSA’s decision to appeal Prouty’s reinstatement surprised Joe Moravec, who worked closely with Prouty while serving as acting GSA administrator from 2001 to 2005. He described Prouty as “an outstanding civil servant and proud man who felt the government was trying to ruin him.” He said Prouty became determined to clear his name after his daughter came home from school after news of the GSA scandal broke and asked him, “Are you a crook?”

Moravec says the Obama administration’s response to the scandal devolved into “an old-fashioned political witch hunt. When the president is embarrassed, for whatever reason, the political people have to fall on their swords,” he said, referring to Johnson and Peck. “But a lot of senior career people got hurt who had nothing to do with it.” He warned of a “brain drain at GSA, with morale very low” and GSA “retreating back to a posture in which no one wants to take risks of any sort,” which makes running the agency more difficult.

“It generally takes years,” he said, “for an agency to get back to some kind of balance between being vigilant and responsive while also adding any kind of value to doing the job of government.”

(Image via Flickr user anujbiyani)

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