A top official with the General Services Administration (GSA) who worked on President Obama's "transition team" tried to bury the Inspector General's report on her agency's massive and extravagant taxpayer-funded Las Vegas conference, the Washington Times reports.
“The 2010 conference, which cost $823,000 and featured a mind-reader, clowns, magicians and a red-carpet party, forced the ouster of several top GSA officials after the agency’s Office of Inspector General released its findings in April,” writes the Washington Times' Jim McElhatton.
former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and GSA Regional Commissioner Jeff Neely, April 16, 2012. (Bloomberg)
But what a lot of people don't know is that as soon as GSA officials caught wind of the IG's report, Ruth F. Cox, the agency’s regional administrator for several Western states, called up Washington to see if there way any way to keep the report from going public.
“Is there something we can do to prevent another potential embarrassing episode from unfolding and keep this report from being made public?” she asked in an email obtained by The Washington Times.
She added that she feared the report wasn’t entirely accurate, although it has been revealed that she said all this before she even saw the final draft.
“We don’t need another $16 muffin public allegation that is eventually proven wrong and the damage is already done (and exacerbated by making a false allegation),” she wrote in “highly confidential” email.
What the heck does she mean by a “$16 muffin public allegation”?
The “muffin” comment is a reference to a Justice Department's Office of Inspector General report that falsely identified among actual conference expenditures muffins that cost $16 each.
Agency spokesman Adam Elkington said earlier this week that Cox’s email was sent before the inspector general even released its report and before she had “any knowledge of the findings.”
“GSA, including Ms. Cox, is appalled by the missteps highlighted in the IG’s report and have taken disciplinary action against those responsible, accepted all of the IG’s recommendations and continue to take steps to ensure this never happens again,” Elkington wrote in an email to The Times.
“We welcome oversight and will continue to be guided by the highest level of transparency. GSA’s new Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini initiated a top-to-bottom review of our agency’s operations. GSA remains committed to eliminating excessive federal spending and promoting government efficiency,” he adds.
Cox’s email also refers to Jeffrey Neely, the former administrator who helped organize the lavish Las Vegas conference.
“I know Susan is not happy that Jeff received a relatively high performance evaluation and bonus given what transpired with the Western Regional Conference, but my concern at this point is not Jeff but the agency and the administration,” Cox wrote in the confidential email.
“Making this public to punish Jeff with a side effect of unnecessarily exposing the agency doesn’t make sense to me.”
But this is the bottom line: the GSA knew immediately once it caught wind of the IG's report that things weren’t going to go down well. They knew that this would lead to public outrage and they knew that this would hurt top players including former GSA Commissioner Martha Johnson, adviser Stephen Leeds, and Robert Peck, chief of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, all who were ousted after the release of the report.
This is why they tried to bury the story.
Cox has since been appointed the regional administrator for the Pacific Rim and oversees 1,000 fed employees and 1,200 fed buildings in areas including California, Nevada, and Hawaii.
“Meanwhile, Congress has held several hearings on the conference, including one where Mr. Neely, no longer employed by the agency, refused to testify and invoked his rights under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination,” writes McElhatton.
“Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has called on GSA to detail hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses paid out to ‘virtual’ employees, including supervisors, who worked out of the office,” he adds.
Front page photo source: Bloomberg