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GSA Clown-Conference Scandal Could Hurt Other Agencies

Former GSA administrator Martha Johnson on Capitol Hill in June  2009.
Harry Hamburg
Former GSA administrator Martha Johnson on Capitol Hill in June 2009.

The scandal involving the General Services Administration's by now infamous conference featuring spending on a clown and mind reader is certainly far from the biggest in terms of the overall dollars involved. After all, we're talking about less than $1 million all told.

That's pocket change at the Pentagon, where they can probably find more taxpayer money under the couch cushions.

But it may go down in history as one of the dumbest. A clown and a mind reader at a conference of federal bureaucrats? Really?

And it's not like the officials who signed off on the conference held in 2010 at a resort outside Las Vegas weren't warned that they were in dangerous territory. The harsh report issued Monday by the agency's inspector general says some employees told their higher-ups they might want to reconsider:

"(A GSA manager) instructed those planning the conference to make it 'over the top,' bigger and better than previous conferences. Several suggestions by regional employees that costs be reined in were ignored."

The report is fairly damning. The GSA, an agency responsible for managing government office leases and properties, clearly failed spectacularly on the management front.

Besides paying for the clown and mind reader, GSA employees spent $130,000 to visit hotels, including the M Resort Spa-Casino outside Las Vegas where the conference was held, to plan the meeting.

Agency employees didn't even bother to follow standard government procurement rules.

In a contracting no-no, for instance, someone at GSA gave a preferred contractor details of a competitor's bid.

GSA even provided people working for a contractor with complimentary rooms when the contract included money for the contractor to pay for its own hotel rooms. In essence, taxpayers paid twice.

The report really is must reading to get the fullest understanding of what happened. It's a case study for federal officials of how not to plan a conference. Taxpayers won't be amused, especially not this close to Tax Day.

It's unclear what hand, if any Martha Johnson, the former head of the General Services Administration who "resigned" Monday amid the fallout may have had in the conference.

She, along with two other top officials, are no longer with the GSA while several other officials have been placed on leave pending further disciplinary action, according to reports.

It likely would have been difficult for Johnson to stay on, however, if that was even an option. Upon taking the post in February 2010, she had made it clear that her goal was good government.

An excerpt from a Tuesday Washington Post story:

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.

Ethics "is a big issue for me," she said at the time, adding that "it's right and it's good business" to be a "responsible steward of taxpayer dollars" because "they're trusting you with their pocketbooks."

Such assertions would have made it awkward, to say the least, for her to remain. And the fact that President Obama is seeking re-election made it virtually impossible for her and the other officials to stay on.

Johnson is no stranger to Washington. During the Clinton administration, she served in both the Commerce Department as an assistant deputy secretary and at the GSA, where she was chief of staff.

She also was in the private sector, working as an executive headhunter, finding talent for ice-cream maker Ben and Jerry's, among others, and a consultant.

In her last job before joining the administration she was vice president of "culture" at Computer Sciences Corp., a large government contractor of IT services. After Obama's election, she joined his transition team. The Center for Responsive Politics has her in its "revolving door" database.

The problem for the Obama administration and campaign is obvious. Expect to see mentions of clowns and Las Vegas in Republican campaign ads between now and Election Day.

On NPR member station WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi show Tuesday, Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said:

"This is just embarrassing by any stretch of the imagination. ... Whether it's the mind reader or the clown or some of the group exercises devoted to trying to figure out how to put a bike together, it's just the kind of thing that is just tailor-made for attack commercials out there.

"It sounds silly, it looks silly and is unquestionably a waste of money. It's at the basic core a problem of making policy in Washington and making sure people out in the field get the word."

Kettl made the point that the reaction to the GSA scandal could lead to a pernicious development, the government equivalent of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

In an attempt to prevent such future excesses, cuts could be made to federal agency budgets that actually decrease not improve government's ability to wisely manage its spending.

"The real problem is that we have tens of billions of dollars of Medicare spending that we need to get under control and to do that we require really smart government people who are armed with the right kinds of tools to get the job done.

"And the risk here is that you could end up making everybody inside the government so gun shy that it becomes impossible for them to do what we really need for them to do.

"We don't want to run the risk of, in trying to run a couple hundred thousand dollars of real waste out, ... making it impossible to go after the millions of dollars that we really need to make sure that we recapture."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.