Martha Johnson, who stepped down as GSA head when a report revealed spending abuses at an agency conference, expressed her regrets to a House panel, while another official implicated in the affair invoked his fifth amendment rights.
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.
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