- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2012

Susan Brita, deputy administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), emerged as a whistleblower star this spring, praised for her role in uncovering an $800,000 taxpayer-funded Las Vegas conference with clowns, a mind reader and in-room parties that became a national symbol of egregious government waste.

“As deputy administrator, as a civil servant and as a taxpayer, I share your anger and disappointment in GSA’s conduct,” Ms. Brita told a House panel in April.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia, later issued a press release calling Ms. Brita a hero.

But all the while, an internal website on the GSA’s vast computer network showed images of Ms. Brita at another wasteful GSA conference. This time, she wasn’t the whistleblower, but just another high-level GSA official having a good time.

Weeks after the now infamous 2010 GSA Las Vegas gathering, she and hundreds of other GSA employees went to another big taxpayer-funded event, this one held much closer to headquarters just a few miles outside Washington.

With estimated costs of more than a quarter-million dollars, the one-day conference included a private commissioner’s party, a drumming troupe, more than $20,000 in catering charges, hors d’oeuvres, mini-pastries, a guitarist and violinist, and giveaways to government employees who took home free time-and-temperature picture frames and drumsticks.

Less than two weeks after the ceremony, where GSA executives schmoozed on stage with a drumming troupe, President Obama announced a pay freeze for federal workers, grimly declaring the need for “broad sacrifice” to get the federal deficit under control.

The Times filed an open-records request in May for a copy of the internal GSA website on the conference as part of the newspaper’s investigation into spending at the event held at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington to honor the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

But before turning over conference records to The Times late last week, the GSA’s acting administrator, Dan Tangherlini, notified the GSA Office of Inspector General about the Crystal City event in a July 11 letter, which prompted a second letter last week from the inspector general to Congress. There, lawmakers quickly briefed the Capitol Hill press corps on what has became another GSA conference spending scandal.

The news prompted strong words of rebuke from lawmakers of both parties, a rare show of bipartisanship in election-year Washington, as well as condemnation of the event from the GSA’s own leadership.

“These events indicate an already recognized pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations,” GSA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said. “It must stop, and is why acting Administrator Tangherlini has instituted several stringent new policies on spending to put an end to this misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

GSA officials declined to make Ms. Brita, who was the subject of glowing press reports just months ago, available for an interview when asked whether she ever expressed concerns about the wasteful spending at the Crystal City event.

“The deputy administrator is working closely with the new head of the agency on a top-to-bottom review of the GSA and has helped establish stringent controls on travel and conference spending to root out any misuse of taxpayer dollars,” GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said. “While the deputy administrator attended the event, she was not involved with the planning and was not aware of the costs associated with the event.”

Asked whether any of the top GSA officials who took part in the Crystal City event would face the sort of discipline meted out to organizers of the Las Vegas conference, including suspensions and firings, Mr. Cruz said a review is under way.

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