Former GSA leader regrets scandal that 'besmirched' agency's good name

Martha Johnson, former administrator of the General Services Administration, apologized April 16 for her actions and the now tarnished image of the agency.

“I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched,” Johnson told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.”

Johnson said she stepped down to show how unacceptable the event were and let a new team of leaders take GSA forward.

Johnson and the other officials involved in the scandal surrounding the Western Regions’ Conference in 2010 testified before the committee. One witness, Jeff Neely, GSA’s Region 9 commissioner who helped in planning the Western Region’s Conference, chose not to speak at the hearing, citing his Fifth Amendment rights.

Johnson told the committee GSA Deputy Administrator Susan Brita requested an investigation of the Western Region’s Conference in October 2010. The inspector general subsequently briefed Brita, with a presentation on the initial findings, and Brita shared the results with Johnson and three senior officials in May 2011.

The hearing was just the first of several that GSA officials will undergo over the next few days. See the full calendar, to date, here.

Johnson said in those interim nine months before receiving the IG report, GSA officials continued work to strengthen the leadership, regain control of the organization and address conference management.

But Johnson said she decided to resign three days before the final IG report was released. She had thought about it for the previous six weeks.

As to the conference, Johnson said it had gone downhill since the late 1990s when it had a clear focus.

Johnson worked as GSA's chief of staff from 1996 to 2001. Under President Barack Obama, she was confirmed as GSA administrator in 2010.

In her second tenure as a senior official at GSA, Johnson said the Western Regions’ Conference was “an economical, straightforward set of training sessions.”

Since then though, the conference had fallen away from its intent, she said.

It “had evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers and would stain the very work that other committed staff and I were preparing to do,” Johnson said.

She said leaders apparently competed to show their people how much entertainment they could provide, rather than how much performance capability they could build.

But “the expensive planning for that conference was well underway when I entered GSA, and I was unaware of the scope,” Johnson said.

The conference cost more than $822,000. GSA employees stayed at the luxury hotel and had a lavish reception costing $31,208.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) brought a Black Jack vest with the Western Regions’ Conference, a commemorative coin, a yearbook of conference attendees and a book about Las Vegas where the conference was held, all of which he said were a waste of tax dollars.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) said scandals like GSA’s conference make the public distrust their government.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 OccupyIT

Having now listened to the entire hearing this certainly portrayed Ms. Johnson in a favorable light. You maybe should have mentioned the $9K bonus she awarded Nealy when she had an interim IG report citing his wrong-doings. Ms. Johnson smarmy response that the performance review process is separate from the disciplinary process was astounding yet typical. She seems to confuse the term 'inconclusive' with merely 'incomplete'. She said she didn't even read the report provided by the IG?!?! Then she claims credit for moving to address the issue. She is certainly arrogant - guess that's why she is a political.

Tue, Apr 17, 2012

"besmirched" you know why the agency had an issue communicating an undertanding of the rules and policies to the career employees.

Tue, Apr 17, 2012

Although this is clearly an abuse of taxpayer money, it pales in comparison to the Government-guaranteed loans to Solyndra and other "green" energy companies. Makes you wonder the true meaning of the word "green". IMHO, this $800K scandal distracts from the real scandals. Who should take the bullet for Solyndra?

Tue, Apr 17, 2012 RT

so lets spend a couple million on hearings and rules congress will ask the GSA make exceptions to for their own projects.

Tue, Apr 17, 2012 OccupyIT

Hrmm..... That's leadership? Resign when your senior manager commits administrative suicide? BTW, do you think the whole link with where Ms. Johnson was supposed to be the week of the conference and the White House's involvement in asking Solyndra to delay the layoff announcement until after the election will come to the surface? GSA getting involved in White House political meddling has ended the careers of more than one GSA Administrator.

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