Martha N. Johnson, the chief of the General Services Administration resigned, two of her top deputies were fired and four managers were placed on leave after reports surfaced of tax payer money being spent on a lavish conference in Las Vegas that featured a clown, a mind reader and a $31,208 reception.
In her resignation letter, Johnson acknowledged a “significant misstep” at the agency in charge of managing real estate for the federal government. “Taxpayer dollars were squandered,” she wrote.
At the start of her tenure in February 2010 she said ethics were “a big issue for me.”
Public Buildings Service chief Robert A. Peck, was forced out, along with Johnson’s top adviser, Stephen Leeds. Four GSA managers who organized the four-day conference in October 2010 have been placed on adminstrative leave, officials said.
GSA Inspector General Brian D. Miller released a scathing report on the $823,000 training conference, held for 300 West Coast employees at the M Resort and Casino, in Henderson, Nev., just south of Las Vegas. From $130,000 in travel expenses for six scouting trips to a $2,000 party in Peck’s loft suite, event planners violated federal limits on conference spending.
The White House, which is supposed to be cracking down on government waste, was alerted in March to the year-long investigation. Chief of Staff Jacob J. Lew briefed President Obama before last week’s trip to South Korea.
Obama “was outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors, and disregard for taxpayer dollars,” Lew said in a statement to The Washington Post, calling for “all those responsible to be held fully accountable.” Capitol Hill lawmakers were quick to point to the scandal as more evidence that the Obama administration tolerates wasteful spending of taxpayer money.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) called the episode “a stupid and infuriating waste of taxpayer dollars.” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said it reflects the “waste that exists in a bloated federal government.”
Johnson will be replaced by Dan Tangherlini, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for management.
The GSA, with 12,600 employees in 11 regional offices and the Washington headquarters, also handles much of the government’s procurement and holds a “Western Regions” conference every other year for employees assigned to West Coast offices. The focus is on training in job skills and “an exchange of ideas between ‘higher-ups,’ ’’ the inspector general said.
After the conference, GSA employees created an internal Web site that featured photos and videos of the conference highlights. It was taken down last week.
Among the “excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible” spending the inspector general documented:
$5,600 for three semi-private catered in-room parties
$44 per person daily breakfasts
$75,000 for a “team-building” exercise, the goal was to build a bicycle
$146,000 on catered food and drinks
$6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes to reward all participants for their work on stimulus projects
The $31,208 “networking” reception featured a $19-per-person artisanal cheese display and $7,000 of sushi. At the conference’s closing-night dinner, employees received “yearbooks” with their pictures, at a cost of $8,130.
The GSA did not follow regulations on the use of contractors for the conference, promising the hotel an additional $41,480 in catering charges in exchange for the hotel lowering its lodging cost to honor the government’s limit on room prices.
The report also found “redundant and wasteful” practices that included hiring event planners when the agency already them.
Obama tapped Johnson to lead GSA in June 2009. During a February 2010 interview, Johnson said she intended to run the agency as ethically as possible after years of scandal during the Bush administration.