GSA Scandal Hearings: Day Two, House Leaders Threaten to Shut Down GSA

Rep. Jeff Denham Presiding Over House Subcommittee Hearing

On the second day of congressional hearings on the GSA Las Vegas Conference scandal, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, led by Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), sought detailed information about the management of the agency and how extensive spending abuses took place, at a hearing titled “GSA’s Squandering of Taxpayer Dollars: A Pattern of Mismanagement, Excess and Waste” today (Tuesday, April 17).  Denham and Mica both threatened to shut down GSA over the issue, with Denham telling past and current GSA leaders: “If we continue to see that you are not giving us the information on a bipartisan level to show us how these expenditures are happening, I am prepared to systematically pull apart GSA to the point where we will [ask] the American public whether GSA is needed at all.” Mica suggested the possibility of replacing GSA with another overseer of government property that would be more tightly controlled.

Denham opened today’s hearing by asserting that the inappropriate and potentially criminal actions cited by the inspector general’s report may go well beyond one region of GSA. “The purpose of this committee is to talk about the systemic problem: how deep it goes, the corruption, the fraud, the waste,” he said.  “It is not within the Western Region but within GSA as a whole and possibly within other agencies.”

Region 9 PBS Regional Commissioner Jeff Neely—who took the Fifth at yesterday’s hearing—did not appear at today’s session, where criticism of him extended far beyond his role in the now infamous 2010 Western Regions Conference, to his extensive travel on the government dime and his mishandling of an employee rewards program.  Denham also expanded the scope of the hearing beyond Neely’s misconduct, frequently expressing his frustration with the difficulties the subcommittee has had in obtaining information about what he called “the steadily increasing administrative costs of the PBS.” Throughout the day and with various witnesses, Denham kept returning to the question of whether GSA has been using money from the PBS fund for non–real estate spending.

The scandal has become a political focal point, as Republicans seek to frame it as a reflection of “Big Government” gone wild while many Democrats assert that the problem involved a few bad staffers and a dysfunctional management structure rather than a rotten system.  The overriding image from today’s more than five-hour hearing was that of past and current GSA officials attempting to explain the organization’s complex and decentralized structure, as well as a lack of accountability within the organization, all of which resulted in its inability to quickly halt misconduct.  The panel was told, for example, that the GSA’s chief financial officer lacked direct oversight of spending by regional offices, and that Neely reported to two supervisors at the time of his alleged misconduct—one of whom was Neely himself.  “This is an agency whose structure makes no sense,” said ranking committee member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told the committee that structural changes already are being made.  The agency has consolidated oversight of conferences into a new Office of Administrative Services, and has consolidated all regional budgets and put all budget authority under the purview of GSA’s CFO; regional CFOs now report directly to the agency’s CFO rather than to regional administrators.  Tangherlini added that he is working on a top-to-bottom review of GSA’s operations, which he expects to complete by September.

Today’s hearing featured a larger cast of witnesses than yesterday’s.  Appearing before the committee—in addition to David Foley, Martha Johnson, Brian Miller, and Tangherlini, all of whom also testified yesterday—were GSA Deputy Administrator Susan Brita (best known these days as the whistle-blower who first alerted Johnson to excessive spending on the 2010 conference and asked for the IG investigation), Chief Financial Officer Alison Doone, former PBS Commissioner Bob Peck, and PBS Event Planner Lisa Daniels (who is now on administrative leave).  Peck testified that “I have been removed from the job I loved and I offer my personal apology that some people within the GSA acted as they did.”  He added that he will repay the almost $2,000 charged to his suite for catering costs for a party at the 2010 conference, saying he was told that the catering had been offered free of charge under the agency’s agreement with the hotel.

After eight hours of congressional hearings there is still to come: two Senate hearings, by the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, will be held tomorrow at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., respectively.

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