- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

More than a dozen General Services Administration (GSA) employees and executives from Washington were listed as attendees for the lavish taxpayer-funded Las Vegas conference in 2010 that featured magic shows, a mind reader and a red-carpet event where federal workers acted like Hollywood movie stars.

The participation of so many Washington-based GSA employees raises questions about the notion that a “rogue” regional office undertook a wild spending spree while officials in the nation’s capital were largely unaware.

“The region went wild on you,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, told acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini at a hearing last month, though Mr. Tangherlini took over the agency after the recent resignation of Martha Johnson and was not at GSA when the conference took place.

“They went rogue,” Mrs. Boxer said.

READ MORE: Click here for an inside look at the Las Vegas conference.

In testimony to Congress last month, Ms. Johnson, who apologized and said she took responsibility after the scandal, cited the “gall of a handful of people” who misused tax dollars and twisted contracting rules in explaining the Las Vegas conference.

However, some Washington officials couldn’t have been surprised over the scathing conclusions outlined in a recent audit by the GSA Office of Inspector General on the conference. Indeed, several Washington officials played starring roles at the gathering.

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 from Washington as participants, including several high-ranking officials.

Two prominent Washington officials, Robert A. Peck, head of GSA’s public buildings service, and Stephen R. Leeds, who was a top adviser to Ms. Johnson, were forced out of the agency.

It’s unclear whether several others from Washington who not only attended but played prominent roles at the conference face any fallout.

This week, The Times released hours of video from the convention that were disclosed by GSA in response to an open-records request. The videos featured one clip of the GSA’s chief people officer, Anthony E. Costa, participating in a spoof in which he introduces a clone he says he got through a federal acquisition schedule.

Another speaker at the expensive Las Vegas conference was Jon A. Jordan, deputy commissioner for the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

Yet another attendee listed in the directory from Washington, Bill Guerin, assistant commissioner in the GSA’s public buildings service, was appointed in 2009 to oversee billions of dollars in spending for the agency under the federal stimulus program.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating GSA conference expenditures, said the attendance of officials from Washington at the conference suggested bigger problems within the federal agency.

“Senior officials from D.C. who attended the Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas did not seem to think it was outside the norm, and other employees from GSA have also indicated that the same type of waste is business as usual,” Mr. Issa said.

“There is certainly a culture problem at GSA and within the federal government that isn’t going to disappear overnight,” he said.

Jeffrey Neely, GSA regional commissioner who famously was pictured in a hot tub at the conference, has refused to answer questions about his role, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Recently named to take over the GSA, Mr. Tangherlini, who previously was a top official in the Treasury Department, has called the Las Vegas convention an outrage. In testimony before Mr. Issa’s committee, he also pledged a host of reforms.

“We have taken strong action against those officials who are responsible and will continue to do so where appropriate,” Mr. Tangherlini said. “We are taking steps to improve internal controls and oversight to ensure this never happens again.”

Despite the presence of more than a dozen Washington-based employees at the conference, it also was an official from GSA’s headquarters, Susan Brita, deputy GSA commissioner, who requested the inspector general’s investigation into the Las Vegas conference in the first place, according to congressional testimony.

“As deputy administrator, as a civil servant and as a taxpayer, I share your anger and disappointment,” she told a House panel last month. “When I first became aware of the excessive spending … I requested that the GSA’s Office of Inspector General conduct a review of these allegations.”

Separately, evidence that is surfacing raises questions about whether other conferences included extravagant expenditures. In correspondence obtained by The Times, records show GSA workers traded emails about the Las Vegas conference in recent weeks as details emerged from the inspector general’s review.

“Yes, the IG is looking at quite a few folks with respect to the [Western Regions Conference],” one employee wrote in a March 21 email. “You spend almost $1 million and expect no one to say anything? I have to laugh when I read articles in the newspapers about gov’t agencies having conferences and paying $16 for a muffin.

“That ain’t nothing compare* to what this agency spends. I could definitely give the news folks something to talk or write about.”

The names and titles of the employees were redacted in the correspondence obtained by The Times.

In another exchange, a former GSA employee who went to work at another federal agency suggested that other conferences featured wasteful spending, too.

“No surprise over the western regions conference,” the employee wrote. “What is surprising is that the outcry took so long.

“This has been going on for years. During my time at GSA, I could not bring myself to attend nor associate myself with that, even which I have always seen as an embarrassing boondoggle and waste of tax dollars.”

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