Are Civilian Agencies Held to a Higher Standard Than the Military?

Lawmakers expect heads to roll when civilian agencies screw up. Not so much when it’s the military.

There’s nothing like a good scandal involving waste, fraud and abuse to work members of Congress into a state of outrage. After an inspector general report revealed in 2012 that the General Services Administration spent $800,000 on an over-the-top conference at the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas two years prior, lawmakers jumped into action. 

The report chronicled the $7 sushi rolls, a $75,000 team-building exercise that involved building a bicycle and a mind-reader entertainer. Within days, as images of an executive in a hot tub circulated social media, no fewer than four committees held hearings on the lavish get-together—both chambers’ government oversight panels as well as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Transportation Committee. Incredulous lawmakers demanded accountability. GSA Administrator Martha Johnson was forced to step down; other executives were fired and placed on administrative leave as a federal investigation mounted. Even the White House piled on and ordered all agencies to cut conference spending by 30 percent and banned conferences costing more than $500,000. 

Imagine the outcry in Congress if senior leaders had been involved in a corruption scandal involving a foreign contractor, compromised classified information, prostitutes, cash bribes of $500,000 and lavish gifts.  

That’s exactly the scenario that’s been unfolding over the last 15 months in the Navy as federal investigators dig deeper into an outlandish scheme to soak taxpayers for tens of millions of dollars in bogus fees associated with resupplying Navy ships in foreign ports. 

A reported three dozen admirals are under federal investigation in the bribery scandal involving Singapore-based defense contractor Glenn Defense Marine Asia, a company that supplied deployed ships with food, fuel and other necessities. Countless media outlets have covered the story, which involves such salacious details as “yummy” prostitutes, Spanish suckling pigs, Lady Gaga concert passes and spa treatments.  

In February, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus censured three admirals for accepting lavish gifts from company owner Leonard Glenn Francis, known as Fat Leonard for his corpulent profile and grandiose lifestyle. Two other admirals have been stripped of access to classified information while the investigation advances, and six lower-ranking personnel have been criminally charged. All indications are the prosecution is just getting started.   

The response from Congress to all this? Not much, at least publicly. Two of the most vociferous lawmakers on matters of agency accountability, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., requested and received briefings from the Navy in November 2013 and January 2014, respectively, but neither has held hearings.  

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, says on military matters, most members of Congress take their cues from the Armed Services committees. McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is monitoring the Navy’s response to the growing scandal, but given the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation, “there wasn’t a whole lot we could look into about the case specifically,” a staffer says.

The muted response is striking, especially when compared to lawmakers’ response to the GSA scandal. “It is very absurd that this hasn’t gotten more attention on Capitol Hill. Usually prostitutes are enough,” says Smithberger. 

Perhaps one reason for the disparity, she says, is that Navy leaders were demonstrably violating existing policies and laws. “It’s not clear what the policy solution is,” Smithberger says. “If the problem is we have a military and contracting culture that is far too cozy, it makes coming up with the right policy recommendations for a number of members a little too difficult because then you have to talk about a lot of uncomfortable issues like the revolving door, conflicts of interest, and it’s not as sexy.”

Another reason: “Part of my instinct as well is that a lot of bashing of GSA is about federal employees and there is a real reluctance to be perceived as criticizing our troops,” she adds. “And who knows, maybe it’s just that there’s no video footage like you had with GSA.”

At least not yet.

This article first appeared in the March/April edition of Government Executive magazine.