A top administrator at the General Services Administration who worked on President Obama’s presidential transition team sought to keep secret the agency report that uncovered massive waste at a lavish taxpayer-funded GSA conference in Las Vegas, records show.
The 2010 conference, which cost $823,000 and featured a mind-reader, clowns, magicians and a red-carpet party, forced the ouster of several top GSA officials after the agency’s Office of Inspector General released its findings in April.
But months earlier, as word of the report was circulating among GSA officials, Ruth F. Cox, the agency’s regional administrator for several Western states, contacted a colleague in Washington asking what could be done to shield the report from public view.
“Is there something we can do to prevent another potential embarrassing episode from unfolding and keep this report from being made public?” she asked in an email obtained by The Washington Times.
Ms. Cox also expressed concern that the inspector general’s report was not entirely correct, though officials now say her comments were made before she saw the final report.
“We don’t need another $16 muffin public allegation that is eventually proven wrong and the damage is already done (and exacerbated by making a false allegation),” she wrote in an email she deemed “highly confidential.”
Ms. Cox was referring to a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, which reviewed conference expenditures and later retracted one widely publicized finding concerning muffins initially reported to have cost $16 each.
Adam Elkington, an agency spokesman, said Tuesday that Ms. Cox made the comments in the email before the release of the inspector general’s report and before “having any knowledge of the findings.”
“GSA, including Ms. Cox, is appalled by the missteps highlighted in the IG’s report and have taken disciplinary action against those responsible, accepted all of the IG’s recommendations and continue to take steps to ensure this never happens again,” Mr. Elkington wrote in an email to The Times.
“We welcome oversight and will continue to be guided by the highest level of transparency. GSA’s new Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini initiated a top-to-bottom review of our agency’s operations. GSA remains committed to eliminating excessive federal spending and promoting government efficiency.”
In the email, Ms. Cox also referred to Jeffrey Neely, former acting administrator for the region, who played a key role in organizing the conference and was seen on video boasting about how much fun the federal workers were having in Las Vegas.
“I know Susan is not happy that Jeff received a relatively high performance evaluation and bonus given what transpired with the Western Regional Conference, but my concern at this point is not Jeff but the agency and the administration,” Ms. Cox wrote. “Making this public to punish Jeff with a side effect of unnecessarily exposing the agency doesn’t make sense to me.”
In her email, Ms. Cox also said she shared concerns within the agency about Mr. Neely, who was facing scrutiny because of his agency-funded trips to Hawaii and other Pacific destinations.
The correspondence reflects early recognition within GSA about the potential impact of public disclosure and embarrassment for the administration. Officials were right to be concerned. Among those forced out in the wake of the scandal were former GSA Commissioner Martha Johnson; a top adviser, Stephen Leeds; and Robert Peck, chief of GSA’s Public Buildings Service.
Soon after the audit was released, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew issued a statement condemning the expenditures and noting that Mr. Obama was outraged.
Ms. Cox was named regional administrator for the Pacific Rim in August, overseeing more than 1,000 employees and 1,200 government-owned and -leased buildings in California, Arizona, Hawaii and Nevada, as well as in overseas posts in Guam, Japan and American Samoa.
According to an agency biography, she was executive director of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association before joining GSA. She also has worked as executive director of the 21st Century Democrats and in the Obama-Biden transition team's office of intergovernmental affairs.
Meanwhile, Congress has held several hearings on the conference, including one where Mr. Neely, no longer employed by the agency, refused to testify and invoked his rights under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
The agency came under renewed scrutiny this week after members of Congress questioned more than $1 million in bonuses handed out to GSA employees who were being investigated for wrongdoing or misconduct.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, released information about the bonuses Monday and said the review would be broadened to include other federal agencies.
Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has called on GSA to detail hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses paid out to “virtual” employees, including supervisors, who worked out of the office.