- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2012

General Services Administration officials have been quick to point out that they are taking strong disciplinary action against those responsible for a lavish $823,000 Las Vegas conference funded by taxpayers that featured a red-carpet party, magic shows and in-room parties.

But the official who is in charge of the agency’s Human Resources Department, which oversees discipline, also was among those who attended, raising questions about whether he ought to be participating or even overseeing actions taken against fellow attendees.

While there’s no indication that Tony Costa, the GSA’s chief people officer, helped plan the 2010 conference or took part in any contracting decisions, he and other GSA executives from Washington who attended would have been hard-pressed to miss the signs of extravagance and wasteful spending at the Las Vegas resort.

Not only did Mr. Costa attend the convention, but he starred in a video where he introduced a singing clone.

A GSA spokesman portrayed Mr. Costa as having no role in the conference planning or in the investigations that surfaced after the recent release of a GSA Office of Inspector General report detailing the wasteful spending.

Tony Costa was not involved in the planning of the Western Regions Conference and was not involved in the disciplinary process for those responsible,” GSA spokesman Adam Elkington said. “GSA took strong personnel actions, including removals, administrative leave and suspensions, for those responsible.

GSA has accepted or implemented all of the recommendations of the [inspector general] report and we will continue to review our operations to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

GSA officials did not indicate, in response to questions from The Washington Times, whether Mr. Costa, who was incoming chief people officer at the time of the convention, ever relayed any concerns about what he saw in Las Vegas to other officials in Washington.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group, said the GSA is right not to have Mr. Costa or other attendees at the conference involved in personnel actions.

“The GSA should not have any employee who took part in the conference’s planning or attended the event … conducting investigations or taking actions against employees,” he said. “GSA will really be in the hot seat if there is an appearance of a conflict of interest or questionable actions in handling the conference debacle.”

In a video from the conference, Mr. Costa, then incoming chief people officer, apologizes backstage to a colleague for being too busy to “friend” him on Facebook.

“It’s gotten so bad I’ve had to get some help,” Mr. Costa said, adding that he just got a clone from a government acquisition service schedule. A man wearing a beige cap looking bald - like Mr. Costa - entered the scene and Mr. Costa introduced him as “Tony Clonesta.”

Mr. Costa walked onto the Las Vegas stage in the hotel where the convention was held to the song “Double Vision” by rock band Foreigner before beginning a speech about collaboration. He began his roughly half-hour presentation by telling GSA employees, “I hope you’re enjoying the conference. I’ve been hearing a lot about stuff that’s been going on so far. You guys sound like you’re having a big time.”

Adding that he had been a “newbie” to the Western Region Conference two years earlier, he said, “I’m pretty confident that you’re going to have fun.”

According to the agency’s website, the GSA’s Office of the Chief People Officer oversees programs, policies and operations for GSA’s 12,000 employees, as well as providing human resources support to another 11,000 employees in the Office of Personnel Management, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the National Credit Union Administration and other agencies.

Mr. Costa received the Presidential Rank Award in 2002 as a “Meritorious Executive,” and in 2004 was a “Distinguished Executive,” according to the agency.

A convention directory for the Las Vegas conference, obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act, listed a total of 13 GSA employees, including Mr. Costa, from GSA’s central office in Washington as participants.

Two others, Robert A. Peck, head of GSA’s public buildings service, and Stephen R. Lees, who was a top adviser to GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, were forced out of the agency in the wake of the conference scandal. Ms. Johnson, who did not attend, resigned when the audit on the conference became public.

Another top official, David Foley, deputy commissioner of the public buildings service, also attended. He was suspended but has since returned to work.

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