Doan: ‘I lost the battle’

For one of Washington's most unflinching bureaucratic warriors, the end came swiftly and without notice.

Lurita A. Doan, who had led the General Services Administration through a rocky 22-month period of massive transformation and embarrassing public scandals, was called to the White House on April 29 for her first-ever meeting with top Bush administration officials. Within 15 seconds of sitting down with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Counsel Fred Fielding, Doan was asked to resign, effective immediately.

"It was very sudden," Doan said. "They just said that the White House was requesting my resignation because my actions at GSA were viewed as a distraction."

It had been more than a year since members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled her for hours about her reported effort to award a sole-source contract to a close friend, her role in a lucrative GSA technology contract and accusations that she was using her office for political purposes. And it had been nearly 11 months since the Office of Special Counsel ruled that Doan "should be disciplined to the fullest extent" for violating the Hatch Act, which limits political activity in federal agencies. Last summer, House and Senate lawmakers called on Doan to resign, but when the White House refused to pursue the issue, Congress moved on and Doan's profile slowly lowered.

So why was she fired now?

In an interview with Government Executive, Doan said she was told that her bitter feud with GSA Inspector General Brian Miller and her unwillingness to abandon her effort to press for action on whistleblower complaints filed by four attorneys in the IG's counsel's office had become a distraction to progress at the agency.

"I was doing a great job at GSA as administrator, making sure that transformational change happened at the agency," Doan said. "I had a great team of people who I believe were very supportive of our mission. This was a battle that I was fighting with the IG and I lost. I lost it. That's all there is to it. I lost the battle."

GSA's first female administrator, Doan grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. She went on to Vassar College and later started a successful company, New Technology Management Inc., which sold border surveillance equipment in use at ports of entry throughout the country.

Doan assumed the reins of the government's premier purchasing agency in May 2006 and within months began warring with Miller about oversight, management and funding.

In March 2007, Miller testified that he referred the Hatch Act complaint to the OSC because Doan might have "violated basic rules of conduct for an agency head."

For her part, Doan said that Miller's heavy-handed tactics in overseeing GSA's operations had caused three large contractors to quit the agency's lucrative supply schedules.

In recent months, the rhetoric and infighting between Miller and Doan intensified again, after the four whistleblowers filed a pair of complaints with the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which oversees inspectors general.

When the PCIE dismissed the complaints, Doan called the committee a "hollow shell that … exists only as a fig leaf to provide the illusion of oversight over IG misconduct." Later, in a letter to Kenneth Kaiser, the integrity committee's chairman and assistant director of the FBI's criminal division, Doan said the PCIE's classification of the complaints as an "internal dispute" was "absurd."

Last week, the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service, who had agreed to review the case after the PCIE determined that some of the complaints did not fall within its purview, said it had found no evidence of wrongdoing by Miller or his deputies.

That appeared to be the end of the line for the complaints. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told Doan "to move past this matter" while Miller encouraged all parties "to get back to work." Doan, however, was not willing to let go, vowing to "stay on this issue like a dog on a bone." She continued to argue that investigators had yet to interview the attorneys.

"These four whistleblowers are not some flotsam and jetsam," she said. "They are speaking with knowledge. They see everything that goes on. And when they speak out, it's extraordinary that they could be ignored. I had just sent another letter to Sen. Grassley and the PCIE requesting that they get heard and that I was not going to stop."

In hindsight, Doan says that may have been the "straw that broke the camel's back" with the White House. But, despite the outcome, Doan, who still has difficulty referring to her time at GSA in the past tense, said she is satisfied with how she handled the situation.

"This was my agency and these were my employees; every single one," she said. "I don't care what the IG says. He works for me also. So his employees are my employees. And you cannot break faith with your people. You have to support them."

Doan also may have run into trouble in recent weeks after she rejected two proposed political appointees to serve as GSA's general counsel and chief acquisition officer. Doan said she "wanted the best and most experienced people in those slots" and that she was pleased with the work of the career GSA employees currently occupying the positions on an interim basis.

"It's kind of ironic that I am being pinged for not hiring politicos given what has been going on," Doan said with a laugh.

Despite her constant battles with Washington power brokers, Doan rejects the idea that she is a loose cannon or that her personality was ill-suited for a high profile government position.

"I am proud that I don't play by the rules of Washington," Doan said. "I have said from the very beginning at my confirmation hearing that what I think is important is transparency, integrity and accountability. I simply believe that it needs to be applied equally to everyone. And, what some people might call, 'not playing by the rules,' I actually call transparency. I don't want to sugarcoat it and I don't want to lie. I could have said that I wanted to spend more time with my family; that's what most people would have said. But that's not transparent and that's not honest."

Doan speaks with pride about GSA's accomplishments during the past two years and is not shy about taking a degree of credit.

During her tenure, GSA created the Federal Acquisition Service, culminating the largest reorganization in the history of the agency. The agency also was able to regain a clean audit opinion after fixing six material financial weaknesses, advanced an aggressive telework agenda and got spending under control at the agency's Office of Assisted Services, which had been hemorrhaging millions of dollars. The office now is breaking even.

"And we did it without any cuts, RIFs or buyouts. It's never been done in government before," she said. "Government usually takes the easy way out and whacks the people as a way to cut the budget. We didn't do that."

Unapologetic to the bitter end, Doan said that if she had it to do it all over again, she would not have handled her problems with Miller any differently -- even if she knew that it would get her fired.

"The minute the administrator is no longer willing to take on tough battles for GSA employees, everything stops," she said. "On the other hand, I now better understand just how little many in Congress understand about procurement policy, much less the role of GSA. So in the end ….Garth Brooks probably said it best: 'I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance.' Say whatever else you want, but I gave it my all."

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