Doan hearing focuses on improper politics

Waxman seeks information about whether GSA’s leader and others violated Hatch Act

Rep. Henry Waxman lived up to his firebrand reputation by grilling General Services Administration Administrator Lurita Doan about allegations of inappropriate — possibly unlawful — behavior.

The California Democrat is now directing his investigation to the White House. Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wants to know whether a Jan. 26 meeting for political appointees at GSA's headquarters, on federal time about partisan issues, was a one-time occurrence or part of a pattern involving other federal agencies and potentially a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from engaging in political activity while at work.

Waxman gave Karl Rove, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, until April 13 to answer a series of questions about a PowerPoint presentation that J. Scott Jennings, Rove’s deputy, made at GSA’s headquarters Jan. 26. Waxman is also awaiting a ruling by the Office of Special Counsel on whether the January meeting violated the Hatch Act before he decides whether to pursue further hearings.

“This appears to be a textbook example of what should never happen at a federal agency,” Waxman said of the January meeting. “You can’t engage in partisan political activity on government time.”

The alleged Hatch Act violation was just one of several accusations leveled at Doan in recent months. Waxman’s March 28 hearing tried to ferret out Doan’s involvement with the White House presentation, her attempt to push a $20,000 contract to a friend and her possible intervention in awarding a contract to Sun Microsystems.

Doan, who has been administrator for 10 months, told the committee that her aggressive attempts to cut wasteful spending in agency programs ultimately landed her on Capitol Hill under close scrutiny by congressional leaders. Doan also said her chilled relationship with GSA Inspector General Brian Miller contributed to her troubles as the pair struggled over oversight and authority in the agency.

Doan called the allegations groundless, noting that they stem from a single source. Doan admitted making mistakes, however, and said she probably would make more of them. However, she emphasized that there was no wrongdoing.

Doan added that the hearing would have far-reaching effects. “I fear if it becomes common practice for agency heads to face a never-ending barrage of personal attacks for [imposing fiscal discipline] that you can be sure that no such effort — it’s never going to be made again.”

Democrats and Republicans were sharply divided throughout the hearing.
“The title of today’s hearing pretty much says it all: ‘Allegations of Misconduct at the General Services Administration.’ Not facts. Not findings. Not even credible complaints. Just allegations,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member on the committee and a supporter of Doan.

“We’ll let the facts speak for themselves,” Waxman responded.

A brown-bag lunch
Committee members reviewed allegations that stemmed from a brown-bag lunch where Jennings spoke to about 40 GSA political appointees, including Doan.

“These meetings grew out of a recognized need to do team-building with GSA’s noncareer employees,” Doan said.

Democrats were skeptical about her answer. The committee obtained Jennings’ PowerPoint presentation that had 28 slides. The slides presented the White House’s detailed analysis of the 2006 elections and some strategies for the 2008 election.

Democratic lawmakers and the Congressional Research Service said the slide presentation raised concerns that Doan and others might have violated the Hatch Act. 

Doan’s faulty memory about the Jan. 26 PowerPoint presentation appeared to frustrate the committee’s Democrats. The day of the presentation was a busy one for Doan, she said, explaining why she could not recall much about the meeting. Doan said she remembers cookies being on the table and coming in late.

Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) said Jennings’ presentation was clearly about taking Democratic seats and Doan’s faulty memory was like looking away from illegal activities happening in her agency. “You can’t turn that agency into a political tool,” Watson told Doan.

However, Davis came to Doan’s defense, saying the White House officials, not Doan, called for the meeting, and she was not involved in selecting the topic.

A $20,000 contract
Doan also faced allegations of trying to give a contract to a friend. The IG started an investigation Aug. 28, 2006, when an anonymous source gave Miller documents showing that Doan tried to award a $20,000 sole-source contract July 25, 2006, to her friend, Edie Fraser, president of the Public Affairs Group and its subsidiaries, such as Diversity Best Practices. Doan did not consult any contracting or legal professionals on her staff about the contract. She also lacked such authority to award a contract, Miller said.

GSA terminated the contract before any money changed hands or services were rendered. “I made a procedural mistake in my zealous efforts to promote small and disadvantaged businesses,” Doan said.

Miller said the IG investigation came down to the question of whether the transaction with Fraser was a contract or not. The inquiry revealed that the GSA contracting officer and counsel treated it as a contract, he said.

“How could someone with Administrator Doan’s years of experience as a government contractor have made such a basic error as to award a government contract without competition to a friend’s company?” Miller asked.

Davis expressed his frustration about the relatively small contract and the whole hearing. He said the alleged elaborate scheme to enrich an acquaintance turned out little fodder for a scandal.

“It’s just sad. It shows how low it has gone,” Davis said.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said Doan’s biggest mistake was thinking she could use private-sector practices to correct problems in the public sector. Otherwise, he added, “there’s nothing here. In fact, she ought to be applauded.”

Miller, however, said Doan’s knowledge of procurement procedures makes the episode more serious.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, testified before the committee that GSA extended Sun’s multiple-award schedule contract despite allegations of civil or criminal fraud by the company. Grassley conceded, however, “at this point, everything is alleged.”

Grassley was concerned that Doan was willing to extend Sun’s contract without the fraud allegations being settled. The resulting contract gives the government a worse deal than the original contract, and the lost savings could reach $30 million, he said.

Davis pointed out that getting a multiple-award schedule contract does not even guarantee a sale.
Waxman moves on to the White House for answers about political presentationsRep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will look into whether an alleged political presentation given at the General Services Administration building using government equipment was an isolated event or part of a pattern.

In a March 29 letter to Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff, Waxman asked whether similar presentations have been given at other agencies. Waxman, chairman of the committee, said the Congressional Research Service concluded that a PowerPoint presentation at the GSA headquarters building Jan. 26 might have violated a federal law that prohibits political activity in government buildings with government equipment on government time.

Waxman’s letter asks for an explanation of the policy of the White House Office of Political Affairs regarding where and when its employees can make political presentations, whether others were made, and who wrote the slides presented at the GSA briefing.

One of the allegations about GSA Administrator Lurita Doan that Waxman’s committee is reviewing involved a political presentation that Rove’s deputy, J. Scott Jennings, made to Doan and about 40 GSA political appointees at the agency’s headquarters. The 28-slide presentation listed 20 Democratic House districts seats and 26 Republican House seats that the White House considers vulnerable in 2008. Another slide depicted a map of the Senate seats with indicators showing whether particular Republicans will have to play defense or offense in the coming election.

When the controversial slide presentation was shown to the House committee, it appeared to upset some of the committee’s Democratic members.

“The political activities of the GSA seem to be part of a much broader and more troubling trend throughout the entire federal government under this administration,” said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), addressing Doan. “You have been used.”

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