Yet Another GSA Conference Scandal Hearing

Ms. Cynthia Metzler, GSA Chief Administrative Services Officer, testifies before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held yet another GSA oversight hearing yesterday (Wednesday, August 1), titled “GSA: A Review of Agency Mismanagement and Wasteful Spending—Part 2.” Following on the tails of the April House and Senate hearings on the now-legendary October 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas, this one focused on a November 17, 2010, performance award ceremony held by GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) in the Crystal City area of Arlington, Va., that cost almost $270,000, as well as on over-the-top spending at more than 75 other GSA employee conferences and soaring administrative costs, including about $44 million in GSA employee bonuses awarded in FY 2011, well above the $10 million first reported by the agency.

While two GSA officials—Inspector General Brian Miller and Chief Administrative Services Officer Cynthia Metzler—testified yesterday, Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) slammed more senior officials for not attending, saying “they will not be let off the hook.” (Metzler told the panel that Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who had a “longstanding family commitment,” had asked the committee to reschedule the hearing “at a mutually convenient date so that he could personally appear”; FAS Commissioner Steve Kempf recently announced that he would begin a 60-day medical leave on July 30.)

Miller testified that GSA’s Office of Audits currently is analyzing conferences held since FY 2011 that had 25 or more attendees and cost more than $10,000. His investigation into the costs of the FAS award ceremony—reported to include $34,000 for the venue rental, $28,000 for digital picture frames given to attendees, and $140,464 for a third-party vendor to coordinate the event—is ongoing. “The vendor cost included over $20,000 for drumsticks and $10,000 for management of a presentation called ‘Mission Possible Agent X,’” he added.

Metzler outlined the steps that the agency has taken to reform its conference and travel policies to prevent such waste from happening in the future. “As of April 2012, all travel for events, including internal GSA meetings, training, conferences, seminars, and leadership or management events, among others, was suspended,” she noted, adding that GSA had cancelled 37 previously scheduled conferences.

Although few details were presented about which GSA employees received bonuses and how those bonuses were justified, Mica said that one employee took home a $79,000 bonus, resulting in total annual compensation of $260,000, and a number of other employees received $50,000 bonuses. “The entire federal government paid $439 million in bonuses to 1.3 million federal employees last year. GSA has 1% of [those employees], and they received 10% of the bonuses. That’s absolutely outrageous,” he added.

Mica and other Republicans are pushing to turn many of GSA’s property management responsibilities over to the private sector, yet the committee chairman said he was unable to find any private sector witnesses to testify about taking on some of that work. “All of those potential participants are so intimidated by GSA that they have stayed away … I’m told, because the GSA has such power,” Mica said. “They control the largest rental market in the world.”

Mica and Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) also blasted GSA for signing a 20-year, $350 million lease for space at 1 World Trade Center (1WTC) without prospectus authorization from the House of Representatives, which Mica likened to “sticking their finger in the eye of this committee.” “After conference after conference, celebration after celebration, several layers of bonuses and overtime, now GSA wants to have authority over leases in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” concluded Denham. “It stops here in this committee.”

Even Democrats on the committee who have supported GSA in the past are losing patience with the agency. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.)—who said her constituents include many hard-working GSA employees who do their jobs diligently and have expressed frustration with GSA—commented that the agency’s excessive spending is “disgusting and not worthy of the taxpayer. It’s not worthy of the citizens of this country, and GSA needs to get its house in order.” While she expressed support for Tangherlini’s efforts to date, ranking committee member Eleanor Holmes Norton also asked Miller to take an in-depth look into GSA bonuses.

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