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.”