Federal jobs filled despite hiring freeze

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The General Services Administration is advertising to fill more than a dozen jobs and has approved hiring more than 40 employees since July, when the agency’s top official announced a “targeted hiring freeze” in the wake of ongoing spending scandals.

The agency disclosed the recent hires after The Washington Times raised questions this week about an online, internal chat in which a GSA official noted that there was “no hard hiring freeze” and the agency continued filling critical positions.

Indeed, more than a dozen GSA jobs were posted on a federal government hiring website as of Tuesday. Vacant positions included building manager, information technology specialist, contract specialist, realty specialist, financial management analyst, performance manager and appraiser.

In separate correspondence obtained by The Times, GSA Chief People Officer Anthony E. Costa recently told department heads that while organizational performance awards were being eliminated throughout the agency, “This will not affect individual bonus awards” for fiscal 2012.

Taken together, the comments by Mr. Costa show that amid the well-publicized crackdown on bonuses and hiring, both practices continue in some form as the GSA finds itself the focal point of ongoing congressional scrutiny and what agency officials describe as a “top to bottom” internal review.

A spokesman for the agency said the hires are consistent with the GSA’s public statements because officials had announced a “targeted hiring freeze.”

“During the targeted hiring freeze, GSA has filled some key positions that are necessary for the agency to fulfill its mission, which is in accordance with the original terms restricting hiring throughout the agency,” GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said.

“For example, hiring has included roles that are critical to managing and repairing federal buildings, processing federal contracts and leading the agency’s major division,” he said.

Since July, 43 positions were approved during the freeze, though some were well into the hiring process when the freeze was announced, Mr. Cruz said.

GSA acting Administrator Daniel M. Tangherlini announced a targeted hiring and bonus freeze over the summer. In a July memo, he said even with the freeze, there would be a process to fill “critical vacancies.” He also said the GSA had more than 15 types of performance awards, a system he said lacked transparency. GSA has come under scrutiny for tens of millions of dollars in bonus payouts for employees over the years.

“I believe that performance awards should be issued for exemplary service that goes above and beyond the basic, expected level of service,” Mr. Tangherlini wrote.

“Therefore, we are going to undertake a comprehensive review of the performance management and awards system, which will include [Senior Executive Service] and non-SES employees and encompass individual and organizational performance awards.”

On Oct. 4, Mr. Costa and the agency’s chief financial officer, Gary Grippo, sent a separate memo to regional administrators, managers and supervisors about bonuses. Citing “intense fiscal pressure,” the memo announced that the GSA was scrapping “organizational performance awards,” redirecting money instead for “direct mission purposes and meeting GSA’s essential obligations.”

But if GSA employees were upset about the move, not all of the news was bad: “To be clear,” Mr. Costa’s memo also noted, “this decision applies to organizational performance awards, not individual performance awards.”

Under GSA rules, employees could receive both kinds of bonuses in the past. Organizational bonuses are cash awards given to groups of employees. They’re the same sorts of awards that were doled out at a 2010 Crystal City event during which the GSA spent about a quarter-million dollars for a one-day gathering that featured a drumming troupe, catering charges, hors d’oeuvres, a violinist and a guitarist.

Details about the conference surfaced this year after The Times sought details about it through a Freedom of Information Act request. Congress also is investigating dozens of GSA conferences spanning Democratic and Republican administrations.

Participants at the Crystal City event included Susan F. Brita, a deputy GSA administrator who was widely praised for helping expose an earlier wasteful conference in Las Vegas. Mr. Costa didn’t attend the Crystal City event, but he was present and participated in a skit for the Las Vegas gathering, which cost $800,000. The conference included clowns, a mind reader and in-room parties.

The GSA administrator at the time, Martha Johnson, and several other top officials were forced out in the wake of news about the Las Vegas conference this year, resulting in Mr. Tangherlini’s appointment.

While dozens of employees have been hired and individual bonuses appear safe for now, Mr. Cruz said, the reforms are on track.

GSA leadership has suspended all organizational performance awards, cut bonuses for senior executives by 85 percent and announced at a recent congressional hearing that additional cuts will be made to individual performance awards,” he said.

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