- 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.

“The Office of Inspector General has very recently began their investigation, and we will support their efforts. We are also looking into this event. Based on our findings and those of the inspector general, we will determine our course of action,” he said.

Despite the agency’s strong words, videos from the conference obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act show the gathering couldn’t have been that much of a surprise to several of Mr. Tangherlini’s top officials. And signs of wasteful spending seemed hard to miss.

After all, videos show several current GSA executives on the stage, foot-stomping, smiling, waving and banging long sticks that the lead performer of the government-hired drumming group called “boom-whackers.”

At one point, top GSA officials led their assigned teams of government employees in tapping out a beat. Each team had a color determined by the color of their boom-whackers.

Introduced as “Ms. Orange for the day” was Ms. Brita. Jon Jordan, deputy of the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS), was Mr. Yellow, while Tami Riggs, an assistant commissioner in the FAS, headed the green team. Other top officials participating included Tim Horne, FAS regional commissioner; Mike Tyllas, who is now deputy chief people officer for the GSA; and Steve Kempf, the FAS commissioner.

Mr. Kempf recently spoke out on the Las Vegas conference.

“We’re all disappointed by the poor judgment that was shown by a few individuals,” Mr. Kempf told a procurement conference in Virginia earlier this year, according to Federal Computer Weekly.

After the scandal involving the Las Vegas conference surfaced, some painted it as the actions of a “rogue” regional office where spending went unchecked.

“The region went wild on you,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, told Mr. Tangherlini at a hearing.

Mr. Tangherlini took over the agency after the resignation of Martha Johnson, who left the agency in the wake of the Las Vegas scandal.

“They went rogue,” Mrs. Boxer said.

But videos, hundreds of pictures and a conference directory later obtained by The Times raised questions about that notion. The records showed the attendance of more than a dozen high-level GSA officials at the Las Vegas gathering.

Likewise, Washington-based officials were well-represented in Crystal City. During one portion of the conference, top GSA executives happily moved to the beat on stage with drummers as hundreds of GSA employees watched from the audience.

“It’s all about rhythm,” the woman from the drumming troupe informed the federal workers at one point. “There’s Monday-morning rhythm. There’s Friday-afternoon rhythm. There’s a fast-working rhythm. And there’s the rhythm that we’ve always felt since we were in our mothers’ womb 6 inches away from her beating heart.”

Many of the federal workers in the audience stood and banged their sticks, but others stayed seated. These employees traded uncomfortable glances and awkward smiles, perhaps as if to ask, though not out loud lest a boom-whacker-wielding supervisor overhear, “Why?”