What happened in Vegas cost Johnson her job

The resignation of Martha Johnson as administrator of the General Services Administration seemed to take everyone by surprise. But the news spread rapidly, and within hours, the GSA inspector general released the report that had prompted her resignation.

Johnson was yet another public official caught in a spending scandal — in this case, a conference in Las Vegas that racked up more than $800,000 in costs, much of it excessive or frivolous and some of it in flagrant violation of contracting rules, according to the IG.

However, some questioned whether Johnson should bear so much of the blame. Most of the planning for the 2010 Western Regions Conference took place in 2009, long before Johnson became administrator in April 2010, as noted by consultant and former GSA official Bob Woods in FCW.com’s coverage. Johnson took two other top GSA leaders with her, firing Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck and her senior adviser and former acting GSA administrator Stephen Leeds.

Nevertheless, even Woods tempered his support, saying Johnson didn't do enough after the fact to limit the damage. GSA officials posting photos of Peck's luxury hotel suite struck Woods as adding insult to injury. It "makes me wonder whether the judgment button was in the off position," he said.

Most news reports pinned a lot of the blame on Johnson. That was certainly the case with Bill O’Reilly’s opinion piece on FoxNews.com.

"Somehow Martha managed to spend an incredible $820,000 for a conference outside of Las Vegas," O'Reilly wrote before tallying up the most egregious expenses, which included $130,000 spent to "scout" the conference hotel. "Apparently, Martha's advance team had to travel to Vegas six times to get a handle on where was best to discuss GSA business. Somebody had to do it.”

Taking a more irreverent tack, Cristina Silva at the Associated Press suggested that GSA doesn’t know how to spend with style. “Extravagant, yes, but not in the league of high rollers, who are treated to private gambling saloons and $425 tasting menus at the city's swankiest restaurants," Silva wrote.

For her article, she contacted Steven Striker, president of Striker VIP, a luxury concierge service in Las Vegas. He said federal employees could have gotten more for their money. His customers "rent out nightclubs and restaurants for private parties and commandeer helicopters and fighter jets for flights across the desert. A private dinner with a celebrity chef starts at $250 per guest.”

And at RecordNet.com, an unsigned editorial said: “The conference, held just outside Las Vegas, included a mind reader, a clown and a comedian. Johnson should have listened more closely to the mind reader because nobody — least of all the taxpayers — is laughing now.”

More outrage came a few days later when videos surfaced in which GSA employees made fun of excessive spending and the IG’s office. Dana Bash reported on CNN that the videos and similar materials were hosted on an internal GSA website, which was apparently taken down after the scandal erupted.

But not everyone was mocking GSA or outraged by the IG's report.

The affair was much ado about not much, wrote Mark Heschmeyer, in an article for the CoStar Group. The group is an information provider for the commercial real estate industry, which is interested because the scandal involves the component of GSA that manages federal property.

Heschmeyer quoted several sources who said the amount of money involved was trivial and chalked the brouhaha up to election-year politics. For example, the article quotes John Kyle, senior vice president of Cresa Washington DC, defending Peck as “an outstanding public servant whom I have known and respected for many years” and saying Peck has now been “sacked, dishonored and disgraced.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above