GSA conference went ‘over the top’
Lisa Rein and Timothy R. Smith
The biennial conference hosted by the General Service Administration’s western outposts has always been a team-building affair. Employees exchange ideas, share best practices and, for four days, have some fun.
In recent years, they flew to New Orleans, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Lake Tahoe, where the Caesars hotel provided lakefront views, a lagoon-style indoor swimming pool and a 24-hour casino.
Then, two years ago, the “Western Regions” conference went over the top.
The gathering of 300 employees from the agency’s Public Buildings Service in October 2010 was billed as a “Showcase of World-Class Talent” at the luxury M Resort Spa Casino off the Las Vegas strip. VIPs — including then-buildings chief Robert Peck — stayed in two-story, 2,400-square-foot loft suites with wet bars and multiple HD televisions. There were after-hours parties, a $7,000 sushi reception, $44-per-head-breakfasts, a $3,200 mind reader and $130,000 spent on pre-conference scouting trips.
In another example of the conference’s less-than-work-focused approach, organizers held an “awards ceremony” on the last day, complete with a “Red Carpet” show and a “Talent Award Showcase” that recognized musical performance rather than contributions to government operations, according to the GSA’s inspector general. Employees were told that the event was called an “awards ceremony” so federal money could be spent on food — a “a running joke” among employees.
And a GSA event planner who attended the conference told a hotel manager that she “could not live without” a $98 purse from the gift shop and asked for a discount. “I can give you a $30 comp,” the manager told her, and the purse was hers.
It was, according to a scathing report issued this week by the inspector general, a devil-may-care culture that made a mockery of the Obama administration’s pledge to run a more efficient civil service.
The excess led the White House to order the resignation of Administrator Martha Johnson. Two of her top deputies, including Peck, were fired. Within hours of taking the reins of the agency Tuesday, Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini told employees that he was canceling conferences similar to the Las Vegas blowout, ones held exclusively for “internal staff.”
Tangherlini said he has canceled numerous conferences and will review every planned off-site meeting for its business justification.
“We cannot allow mistakes or misjudgments of a small number of individuals to slow our progress or take our focus from our goals,” he wrote.
Four regional commissioners have been placed on administrative leave pending further disciplinary action.
Among them is the Las Vegas event’s main organizer, the acting administrator for the Pacific Rim region, who, according to the report, told the event planners on his staff to make the conference “over the top” and “bigger and better” than previous conferences. Employees who suggested this was a bad idea were ignored. Sources familiar with the investigation identified the administrator as Jeffrey E. Neely.
Neely did not respond to requests for comment.
Neely hosted an in-room “party” on the evening of the closing dinner, and according to the inspector general’s report, a relative of his helped select food for the party and co-hosted, though the relative is not a GSA employee. The relative contacted the event planner to add more food, commenting, “Knowing we have a bit more money in the budget helps,” according to the report.
“Minimizing expenses was not a goal,” the report said.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will investigate the misuse of federal money.
“The Las Vegas fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mica said during a news conference Tuesday, where he also complained about vacant or underused government buildings.
Mica offered tepid praise of the Obama administration for taking swift action at GSA.
Arthur Turowski, who worked in the Public Building Service in Washington for more than 30 years ending in 2007, said his conference experiences were much different.
“It was middle-of-the-road hotels,” said Turowski, now a senior vice president at the real estate brokerage firm of Jones Lang LaSalle. “Three stars, maybe two-and-half out of five. Not Motel 6s, but not Ritzes. It was always government-rate stuff.”
“Entertainment was on your own — and that was buying drinks at the bar and maybe going out to the closest restaurant. This was mundane. This was meat and potatoes.”
Capital Business staff writer Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.