GSA scandal: Does agency have culture of waste, fraud, and abuse?

Critics of the huge federal bureaucracy have a history of missteps to cite, from well before the latest GSA scandal, in which Jeffrey Neeley authorized $823,000 for a conference in Las Vegas. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Former GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck testifies on Capitol Hill Tuesday, as Congress continues its investigation of excessive spending by General Services Administration officials in 2010 at a conference at a Las Vegas resort.

Is there a culture of waste, fraud, and abuse at the General Services Administration? That’s what some lawmakers are charging in the wake of a second day of House hearings into lavish taxpayer-funded GSA junkets to Las Vegas and other resort spots.

The fact that western US GSA official Jeffrey Neeley opted for a clown show, a mind-reader, $6,000 in commemorative coins, a $75,000 bicycle-building team exercise, and 2,000 square-foot suites at the Las Vegas blow-out is but part of the story, according to members of a panel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

After all, Mr. Neeley won a $9,000 performance bonus from GSA higher-ups following the $823,000 Las Vegas conference.

Other GSA regions have shown problems, according to reports from the agency’s inspector general. In Kansas City, GSA officials hired an expensive public relations agency to handle complaints about possible exposure to toxic environmental substances at the GSA-managed Bannister Federal Building. In Los Angeles, the GSA is proceeding with a new federal courthouse despite vacant space in nearby federal buildings.

“This culture of fraud, waste, corruption, cover ups – while we can’t prove it yet, there certainly is the perception that there’s an inside deal on some of these things.... This certainly is not only a dark day for the FSA, but it is a dark day for the United States government,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R) of California, chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.

Neeley himself, the commissioner for the Public Buildings Service in the Pacific Rim region, did not appear at Tuesday's hearing. On Monday he appeared but cited his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent under lawmakers’ questioning.

On Tuesday no present or past GSA official defended Neeley’s actions. But some defended the agency itself, saying that rogue actions shouldn’t tar a vast bureaucracy that for the most part keeps the federal government running smoothly.

The Las Vegas spree, as detailed in an inspector general report, “dishonored the thousands of hard-working and dedicated federal employees I have worked with over the years,” said Robert Peck, the former GSA commissioner for the Public Buildings Service, who lost his job because of the Neeley revelations.

Unfortunately for the GSA’s defenders, critics now have a history of agency missteps to cite. Lawmakers reminded GSA witnesses of a 2010 hearing they’d held in a vacant DC federal building, next to the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, in an attempt to get the agency to turn the building into a productive property.

In 2011, 11 GSA employees and contractors pleaded guilty to a kick-back scheme following a five-year Justice Department investigation. In 2008, GSA chief Lurita Doan resigned after being accused of steering a contact to a friend. (Ms. Doan denied the charge.) In 2006, GSA chief of staff David Safavian was found guilty of lying to the inspector general and members of Congress about his efforts to help lobbyist Jack Abramoff gain control of GSA buildings, including the Old Post Office itself.

Thus the GSA now seems a tempting target for congressional Republicans, who hold it up as an example of big government’s inherent problems.

“We wonder why there’s so much mistrust of government,” said Congressman Denham at the close of Tuesday’s hearing.

In fact, the scandal has let some conservatives to wonder aloud why the US has a GSA at all. It’s core functions – the management of federal property, and the purchase of basic supplies for all non-Pentagon US agencies – could just as well be subcontracted to private firms, said conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin.

“It’s a fact of Beltway life that the public can get riled up over a boondoggle trip, but the existence of a bloated bureaucracy wasting goodness-knows how much money isn’t questioned. Until now,” writes Rubin.

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