GSA Implodes; White House Avoids Blame — Yet Again

Reading the NY Times and Washington Post, it’s hard not to conclude that the primary goal of both publications in their coverage was to minimize the White House’s responsibility for the GSA scandal.

Their take––like most scandal press coverage––is that a few individuals, who will now lose their jobs, ignored policy. A few bad apples threaten the otherwise good barrel.

But is that the REAL story?

We have to ask why did it take 18 months for this scandal to be exposed?

The reason in this case was that not until someone tipped off the Inspector General’s office did the extravagance of the October 2010 event get called into question. So one must ask why all but a handful of the GSA employees in Washington involved in the planning of the event and the 300 persons who attended this event found nothing untoward in being the recipients of $823,000 worth of expenditures for the purpose of training in job skills and “an exchange of ideas between higher-ups”? (Washington Post)

Those expenditures included $44 per person daily breakfasts, semi-private catered in-room parties, $75,000 for a team-building exercise, $146,000 on catered food and drink, a “mind reader,” a clown, $6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes and $8,130 for “yearbooks” with photos for all participants.

Let’s go over that one more time to make sure everyone gets the point.

We’re not just talking about a few maverick higher-ups who spent lavishly––although they did, taking six trips out to Vegas to make sure the city could handled their needs. What we have is a case where almost all of the 300 GAO employees involved felt what they experienced at the M Resort and Casino was responsible use of their time and of the taxpayer’s dollar. Only a few complained.

Anyone who did not formally complain should be disciplined and it should be made clear to all 12,600 GSA employees that to remain silent in the face of such behavior is grounds for dismissal.

Now let’s come back to the Obama Administration’s role in this.

Recall it was only last summer when we learned that the Justice Department was prolifigate in its conference spending. While the $16 originally reported as the cost of muffins was miscalculated, the Justice did not retract the expenditure of $7.32 per serving for “beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres” or the “$76-per-person” conference luncheon which featured “slow-cooked Berkshire pork carnitas, hearts-of-romaine salad — and coffee at $8.24 a cup.” (Washington Post, 10/28/11)

The director of the Office of Budget and Management came to the President’s rescue on that occasion stating “from the start of this Administration, it has been a priority of the President to make sure that the Government operates with the utmost efficiency and eliminates unnecessary or wasteful spending.” (Washington Post)

The president then ordered “a government-wide review of conference expenses.” Too late as it turned out for the GSA administrators who followed “neither federal procurement laws nor its own policy on conference spending.” (What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – GSA is “over the top”, Project on Government Oversight, 4/3/12)

But even as the Inspector General was investigating mind-reader gate, the Project on Government Oversight reports the GSA is planning to send 150 of its employees to San Diego in July for 5 days for a conference of industrial operations analysts and administrative contracting officers. This conference will cost taxpayers upwards of $150,000 before muffins, hors d’oeuvres and in-room parties. I hear they’re looking for a motivational speaker who can help GSA employees weather a scandal. Name your price.

What it comes down to is the President continues to talk a good game, but has made little headway in the battle against privilege and entitlement that exists in the federal bureaucracy. On what basis could GSA managers justify the need to go “over the top” on behalf of 300 regional employees? What payoff did they imagine would result from the job skills training or the exchange of ideas among higher-ups?

In truth, these events are a form of payoff for the onerous duties that befall people who sacrifice what would otherwise be magnificent careers to work for the federal government AND for those contractors who suffer from having to submit so much paperwork in order to sell their $500 screwdrivers to the federal government. If this were not par for the GSA course, a lot of people would have said “Are you kidding me? No way.”

What’s needed is a policy that says the GSA shall have no conferences under any circumstances for any of its employees. After all those employees undoubtedly have the latest in communications technologies. If they can’t exchange ideas via email, text-messaging or courier pigeon, their ideas probably aren’t worth exchanging and if they don’t have the skills necessary to do the job, who in the hell hired them?

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