- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The embattled General Services Administration (GSA) is facing investigations into as many as 77 conferences and awards ceremonies over the years as more details emerged Wednesday about a lavish one-day gathering in Crystal City costing more than a quarter-million dollars for hundreds of employees, including a top agency deputy hailed just months ago as a taxpayer hero.

At a congressional hearing into the latest scandal, Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said both the GSA’s Office of Inspector General and the House committee are investigating a host of potentially wasteful conferences hosted by the agency, which handles federal contracting and oversees the government’s vast real estate holdings.

The first serious signs of trouble in the agency came to light earlier this year when the GSA became embroiled in a controversy over a more than $800,000 Las Vegas conference featuring clowns, a mind reader and a red-carpet party.

A second conference scandal emerged last month when Congress learned from the GSA’s inspector general, Brian Miller, about the one-day, $250,000 conference in Crystal City. The attendees included a GSA deputy administrator, Susan Brita. She was called a hero by one lawmaker for helping to expose the Las Vegas conference.

Details from the Crystal City conference came to light as the GSA told the inspector general that it was about to release information about the event in response to an open-records request. The Washington Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request on the Crystal City event in May. Mr. Miller said his office also received an anonymous tip about the conference in May.

Mr. Mica thanked the media for helping uncover details about the gathering, citing a Freedom of Information Act request by The Times that produced videos and other records from the Nov. 17, 2010, Crystal City gathering as well as other media outlets reporting on GSA compensation practices.

Videos from the Crystal City event show Ms. Brita on stage with a drumming troupe and other top GSA executives, just one example in a conference that both Democratic and Republican members have railed against as outrageous and wasteful. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District and is a Transportation Committee member, issued a press release calling Ms. Brita a hero earlier this year. On Wednesday, she made no mention of the GSA executive.

In a statement, a GSA spokesman last month said Ms. Brita attended the gathering but was not involved in planning it and did not know about the expenses.

Mr. Mica said the committee requested Ms. Brita for the Wednesday hearing. But noting her involvement in the Crystal City event, he said, she did not come. Other top GSA officials who also were invited to attend ultimately declined, too, he said.

“It’s getting difficult to find anyone who hasn’t been involved in these scandals to come and testify,” Mr. Mica said.

The one-day Crystal City conference also 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.

Cynthia A. Metzler, GSA’s chief administrative officer, testified at the hearing Wednesday, saying the agency’s acting administrator, Dan Tangherlini, was unavailable because of a family commitment. Mr. Tangherlini took over the agency after the former administrator, Martha Johnson, resigned this year in the wake of the Las Vegas conference scandal.

In a statement, Ms. Metzler said the agency has canceled more than three dozen conferences and enacted a host of travel reforms. She said the 2010 ceremony was a pattern of misjudgment that spanned several years across administrations.

Among other conferences under scrutiny, according to Mr. Mica, is another one in Henderson, Nev., where dozens of employees in the GSA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs gathered for five days for an “intergovernmental relations conference” in September 2011. Lawmakers also questioned a conference this week in Nashville, Tenn.

Mr. Miller said GSA officials are cooperating with his investigation. He also said his office is working on an audit of executive compensation, which likely will explore employee bonuses. He declined to answer a number of specific questions about the latest conference, saying his investigation was ongoing.

Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, California Democrat, said that in addition to all of the wasteful conference expenditures, taxpayers also are going to have pay for the investigation into 77 conferences now under the inspector general’s office review. She also questioned why it took so long for years of wasteful spending to come to light.

Mr. Miller said he couldn’t quantify how much the investigation would cost but that his office is conducting the probe in the most efficient way possible.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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