- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The well-publicized hiring by the General Services Administration (GSA) of a mind reader at a lavish Las Vegas conference may not have been improper after all.

The purchase, which prompted outrage on Capitol Hill, would have been perfectly legal if the self-described mentalist, Bob Garner, had been performing for the GSA as a motivational speaker.

“The rules do allow a motivational speaker,” GSA Inspector General Brian Miller told a congressional panel in April. “Now, if he was mind-reading or [providing] entertainment, that would not be allowed.”

It’s not clear whether Mr. Garner was motivating minds or reading them, but either way, the GSA is hardly alone in turning to outside experts to help motivate federal executives. Purchasing records show dozens of contracts across government for motivational speakers over the years.

Such purchases can be hard to track because they’re often arranged through speakers bureaus. But in some cases, even more specific records make it difficult to tell the difference between motivational speaking and show business.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for instance, purchasing records show that officials spent $10,000 during an executive conference on the comedy group Second City. Records describe the purchase as payment for “motivational speaking and comedic educational services.”

Second City is a famous sketch-comedy organization based in Chicago and Toronto. It has national touring companies and a training program that bills itself as “the largest school of improvisation and sketch comedy in the world.”

Separately, the VA paid another $6,500 to Second City in 2009 for “education and training services” and more than $4,500 in 2010 to a vendor named Flappers Comedy LLC for “speakers for employee forum,” according to records.

Asked about the comedy-related payouts, VA officials issued a prepared statement defending the expenditures: “In reference to the indicated contracts, VA has procured services from leading business communication agencies to address learning needs of conference attendees.

“The purpose of the sessions has been to reinforce the importance of teamwork and communication in driving successful change in VA. In some cases, professionals employed humor to convey the message and encourage collaboration.”

The expenditures reviewed by The Washington Times relating to comedy aren’t limited to the Obama administration. At the Bureau of Public Debt in the Treasury Department, officials paid more than $4,000 combined through three purchases during the winter and spring of 2008 to Comedy Theatre Productions Inc., which is based in Massachusetts and bills itself as a team-building and entertainment and theater company.

The same company also was hired by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 and 2008.

The Bureau of Public Debt acted as the contracting agency for the purchase, but it was the office of the Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration that made the expenditure for what officials said were virtual team-bonding exercises for managers in the office of mission support.

In a statement to The Times, officials said the expenditures helped teams “develop precise communications skills in a virtual environment” while adding that the vendor handling the training was named TeamBonding.com, which is a division of Comedy Theatre Productions.

“In a telework environment … it is essential for managers to work effectively with employees in a virtual environment and promote proactive communications practices, encouraging peer interaction and collaboration in a virtual environment,” the inspector general’s office said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service, not an agency the public typically associates with laughter, hired a vendor named Comedy Workshop Productions, whose website describes it as “a school for wannabe comics” that also offers consulting services and keynote speaker services.

The company’s founder, Judy Carter, even mentioned the hiring on a blog post on the company’s website.

“As I was contemplating how to pay my quarterly taxes, I got a call from the IRS,” she wrote. “Believe it or not, I loved hearing from them as they hired me to do two gigs.”

Ms. Carter’s online LinkedIn account makes clear the IRS wasn’t her only government client over the years, with other agencies listed including the U.S. Senate, the Federal Reserve Bank and the U.S. Air Force and Navy.

In a statement, IRS officials said the expenditures, totaling more than $16,000, stemmed from two training seminars in September 2009 for local managers in the customer-service operations in Brookhaven and Buffalo, N.Y.

“Each training session included a three-hour workshop conducted by a recognized expert at helping employees deal with stress in the workplace using a lighthearted approach to workplace conflict resolution,” the IRS noted in a prepared statement to The Times.

“Despite the name of this company, this expert was retained to run sessions focused on developing effective communication methods for improving employee and customer relations.”

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