Just last Thursday, Martha Johnson, fresh off her opening keynote at the General Services Administration’s Acquisition Excellence Conference, sat down for a one-on-one interview with FedScoop at the Grand Hyatt in Washington D.C.
Johnson highlighted her priorities as the administrator of GSA, her top issues going forward and looked back at her proudest accomplishments in two years at the helm of the agency.
During the seven-minute talk being taped for FedScoop Radio, Johnson talked enthusiastically about GSA’s work, in particular helping other federal agencies – feeling the crunch of ever-tightening budgets and demands to do more with less – hitting on the themes of her just-finished speech: GSA is a group of super shoppers that can help agencies get the most for their money.
“My focus this day is making sure everyone knows our brand,” Johnson said.
Always upbeat, Johnson was friendly and engaging before and after the interview, saying that she always enjoyed talking about the great work GSA is doing and welcomed the possibility of doing another interview down the road.
The interview focused on the lessons learned from sustainability and open government and how GSA’s revitalized F Street headquarters could revolutionize the way government office space is used. Afterwards, Johnson talked about a flight to Orlando she was taking later that afternoon for meetings with other government officials.
Needless to say, there was no talk of lavish conferences, inspector general reports (full report below) or the resignations and firings that would lead CNN and become the latest example of government spending gone wrong.
“On his first day in office, President Obama made clear that the people who serve in his administration are keepers of the public trust and that public service is a privilege,” White House chief of staff Jack Lew said. “He was outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors and disregard for taxpayer dollars.”
The numbers from the inspector general are jarring for GSA’s 2010 Western Regions Conference attended by more than 300 people at the M Resort in Henderson, Nev.:
- $822,751 in total for a five-day conference;
- eight pre-conference meetings – including six on site – totaling more than $130,000;
- $5,600 for three semi-private catered in-room parties; $44 per person daily breakfasts;
- $75,000 for training program to build bicycles;
- and even money for a mind reader and a clown, not to mention GSA officials charging catering and bartender services for private in-room parties.
The list goes on.
“I find the information in your report to be very troubling as it outlines potential violations of federal procurement laws and agency policy,” Johnson said in a memo that accompanied the inspector general’s report. “I take this action with great sorrow. GSA holds a special place in my heart.”
President Obama nominated Johnson, who served as a co-leader of the president’s transition team and was chief of staff at GSA during the Clinton administration, to be GSA’s administrator in April of 2009.
Her nomination, though, dragged on after Missouri Sen. Kit Bond placed a hold over concerns about why GSA wasn’t closing down the federally owned Bannister Complex outside Kansas City and relocating staff into the city.
Obama criticized Bond and Republican senators for blocking Johnson’s nomination, saying their protests had nothing to do with Johnson herself. Johnson was finally confirmed in February of 2010, famously taking her oath of office on her kitchen phone during the back-to-back blizzards known in D.C. as the Snowpacalypse.
Johnson became a very public face of the Obama administration, speaking on behalf of the agency’s efforts in sustainability, efficiency, telework, cost savings and open government, among other areas.
She spoke numerous times, blending a mix of wit and enthusiasm with a pride in the agency’s core mission: Providing the government with what it needs to operate at a reasonable cost.
It was a little more than a year ago that GSA’s deputy administrator requested that the agency’s Office of the Inspector General look into potential waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer funds related to the conference.
The inquiry lasted for more than year with the report hitting the agency on Monday with Johnson’s resignation, and the firings of Public Building Service Commissioner Bob Peck and Senior Counselor to the Administrator Stephen Leeds, coming swiftly. Peck even had an item posted on the agency blog Monday, the day of his firing, talking about using technology to improve building performance.
Four other employees in charge of planning the conference have been put on administrative leave.
“GSA will review potential further disciplinary action where warranted, implement reforms to its accounting procedures, and increase the contracting and conference oversight protocols,” said GSA Acting Press Secretary Greg Mecher. “The General Services Administration has made eliminating excessive spending and promoting efficiency one of its top priorities and is taking steps to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Some of the steps the agency will take include directing the GSA Office of Administrative Services to provide greater oversight and accountability for all administrative functions of the agency, requiring mandatory annual training for all employees regarding conference planning and attendance, directing the agency’s Public Buildings Service to cancel all future Western Regions Conferences and exploring every opportunity to recover funds.
Now the question is where does the agency go from here?
Johnson will be replaced by Dan Tangherlini, an assistant secretary in the Treasury Department and former city administrator for the District of Columbia, who is perhaps best known for running the city’s Metro and as city administrator for Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Tangherlini will take the first steps in helping the agency repair its image in the public eye and for those around government who rely on GSA to help make ends meet in hard financial times.
Perhaps it was Johnson who said it best in her resignation letter, “Collectively, the people of GSA now must review, repair and rebuild.”