Governing
2:00 pm
Tue April 3, 2012

Head Of GSA Resigns Over Conference Flap

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Add this to the annals of government waste: an $800,000 conference in Las Vegas where employees of the General Services Administration ate lavish meals, entertained by a comic and a clown. Disclosure of the event led GSA Administrator Martha Johnson to fire two political appointees who attended the conference, and then she herself resigned. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Party planners hoped the Las Vegas conference would showcase the agency's world class talent, but according to watchdogs at the General Services Administration, it was the spending that reached international dimensions. Thousands of dollars on tuxedos, keepsake coins, a yearbook. In all, the meeting for about 300 employees cost more than $800,000, thanks in no small part to the menu.

SCOTT AMEY: Petite beef wellington and mini Monte Cristo sandwiches, sushi rolls, pasta reception station, bartending services.

JOHNSON: Scott Amey follows federal spending for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group in Washington.

AMEY: I mean, it's this kind of waste that takes place that makes people question the integrity of the federal government.

JOHNSON: Reports that the GSA conference featured a mind reader and a bicycle building exercise that cost $75,000 achieved something nearly impossible in Washington - Bipartisan consensus from lawmakers who said they were disgusted.

Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman from California, said the price tag was seriously wasteful and here's Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri.

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: What I can't decide is they had lost their minds or thought they weren't going to get caught. Obviously, either one of those options is unacceptable in government.

JOHNSON: The message is not lost on the White House, especially when the president's in the middle of a reelection fight that could hinge on the state of the economy and when the size of government's an issue. Aides rushed to report that President Obama had called for scalps. He got them.

This week, Martha Johnson, the GSA administrator, fired two senior political appointees who were at the Las Vegas resort for the 2010 conference. She put the employee who planned the meeting on administrative leave and then she turned in her own letter of resignation she wrote with great sorrow.

Only two years ago, the Senate unanimously confirmed Johnson to lead the GSA in charge of managing government buildings and leases. Her arrival, marked by a video on the agency's website.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Martha Johnson ushered in a new era at the U.S. General Services Administration on February 16...

JOHNSON: Johnson, a former chief of staff at the GSA during the Clinton administration, said she had lots of ambitions to make government buildings more friendly to the environment and save money by finding new ways to use computers. Her goals, she said, were as big as the agency's footprint.

MARTHA JOHNSON: There isn't a corner of this government that we haven't touched.

JOHNSON: But the GSA has a checkered record when it comes to management. Johnson's predecessor resigned at the urging of President George W. Bush in 2008 after Democrats in Congress raised questions about her leadership and business decisions. Scott Amey.

AMEY: And you really hope that the next administrator that comes in sets a zero tolerance policy for this type of activity because the GSA is a very vital government agency in charge of running government buildings and facilities, the ownership and leasing of those buildings and facilities, as well as a lot of federal contracting.

JOHNSON: Senator McCaskill says she's going to talk with the new interim leader of the agency this afternoon to reinforce that message.

MCCASKILL: Hopefully, this lesson will permeate to the culture at GSA that you will be held accountable if you waste taxpayer money.

JOHNSON: The Project on Government Oversight says that GSA is planning another conference in San Diego in July and the watchdogs say they'll be keeping an eye on the spending.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.