Send in the Clowns, and Cheese
Our question for today is: What lessons can be learned from the current scandal involving the 2010 Western Regions Conference of the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service?
Honestly, this is a fascinating story. Not much in the way of sex, but there is a clairvoyant and a clown. Plus quite a bit of cheese.
The G.S.A. is a very large agency with the not-always-glamorous mission of providing support services for the federal bureaucracy, some involving the management of public buildings. Every two years, about 300 of the higher-ranking people in the western half of the country have a conference to open lines of communication and improve teamwork.
In 2010, the organizers chose the theme “A Showcase of World-Class Talent,” which, of course, suggested going to Las Vegas and employing a professional mind-reader and clown as entertainers. The four-day gathering wound up costing more than $820,000, some of it for $4-apiece shrimp and an “American Artisanal Cheese Display” at the M Resort Spa Casino.
My immediate reaction was that people planning a conference that involves the use of taxpayer money should try to avoid staging it in a venue that includes the words “resort” or “spa” or “casino,” let alone all three. However, experts from the business world have assured me that a lot of really serious meeting-type activity goes on at places that sound as if they would be far more appropriate for a family reunion or extramarital affair. Until now, I had no idea how much communications and teamwork gets improved in Las Vegas and Disney World.
Still, there is a general agreement that this particular event was over the top, particularly after the G.S.A. inspector general found that the administrator in charge of planning the conference instructed his minions to make it “over the top.”
Among the most notable excesses was $6,325 worth of commemorative coins in velvet boxes, which would be the equivalent of topping off a government holiday party with the distribution of silver-plated fruitcakes.
There was much, much more, including the fact that G.S.A. employees spent so much time visiting Las Vegas on “scouting trips,” planning meetings and preplanning planning meetings that you had to wonder if they were angling for residency status. Then there is the question of why the organizers felt they needed to spend $1,840 on “vests.” Why sushi rolls for 300 people cost $7,000. Or why, when signing off on the entertainment, no one ever envisioned the possibility of headlines like: “G.S.A. Clown-Conference Scandal.”
I will refrain from pointing out that there were much worse G.S.A. stories during the Bush administration, one involving the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. But I’m not going there because, really, that’s all in the past.
In the present, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announced plans to hold hearings on clown-and-cheesegate. The chairman, Representative John Mica of Florida, did acknowledge that no one in the administration had tried to impede the inspector general’s work or keep the results quiet. Perhaps he was thinking back on Lurita Doan, the Bush G.S.A. head, who claimed that attempts to examine contracts for fraud and waste were “eroding the health of the organization” and compared the auditors to terrorists.
Once again, moving on. Honest.
You are probably wondering how the Obama administration reacted to all these developments. It is safe to say that any president would have been seriously displeased at the news that 300 federal building managers had blown almost a million dollars on four days of cocktail parties, although maybe Warren Harding would have wanted to know why he wasn’t invited.
As soon as the inspector general issued his report, Martha Johnson, the head of the G.S.A., canned two top agency officials then resigned herself. One of the now-departed deputies was overseeing a project that involves turning Washington’s Old Post Office Pavilion over to Donald Trump for a luxury hotel. There is no word on whether the uproar might derail the plan, but, personally, I can respond with equanimity to the idea of disappointing Donald Trump about virtually anything.
The Obama administration has actually had its agency chiefs reviewing the money spent on conferences since last fall, and claims it has already saved $280 million. Minus, I guess, $822,751.
The State Department said it has figured out how to hold most of its conferences in government facilities rather than hotels, and that’s my take-away thought. If the G.S.A. party animals had done their team-building in a federal office, I’ll bet there would have been a lot fewer shrimp and commemorative coins. They should have been able to find a spot, what with being the people whose job is managing government buildings. Honest to gosh, you’d think they just wanted to hang out at a resort casino spa.