New report details infighting amid founding of GSA tech hub

The sudden departures of senior GSA acquisition leaders were spurred by an increasingly bitter internal battle, according to a whistleblower investigation.

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Months before two of the General Services Administration's top acquisition officials abruptly left the agency in early June, there were bitter words, internal struggles and administrative retaliation over control of the funds used for the Technology Transformation Service, according to a newly released agency Inspector General's whistleblower investigation.

The story begins in the summer of 2015, as Denise Turner Roth took over GSA's top job and began to flesh out ideas for expanding the 18F innovation group into the Technology Transformation Service – a GSA pillar on par with the Federal Acquisition and Public Buildings Services.

FAS Commissioner Tom Sharpe objected to plans to use the agency's Acquisition Service Fund to fund the nascent TTS, and took his complaints to the IG. An investigation subsequently concluded that Roth had in turn retaliated against Sharpe.

The ASF is a fund that is a pool for the fees the agency charges other agencies to use its schedule and governmentwide acquisition contracts. Sharpe's concerns were based on his understanding that using ASF to fund TTS "violated the 2006 General Services Modernization Act and resulted in mismanagement, waste of funds and abuse of authority," according to the IG report.

The newly posted, 60-page IG report details the rancorous fight between Sharpe and Roth over the creation and funding of TTS.

The OIG said its investigation found "a preponderance of evidence" that Roth made statements and took actions threatening Sharpe with transfer because of his objections to her plans. It also said she didn't follow through on the transfer threats, but adopted a new governance process for TTS's use of the ASF that sidestepped Sharpe in retaliation for his whistleblowing.

Roth disagreed with these and other characterizations in the IG report.

"While, I respect this process, the OIG's findings are wrong and disappointing," Roth said in an email to FCW. "As with my entire, unblemished, 23-year career in government, all actions I took were appropriate, necessary and driven to modernize the federal government."

Memos and discussions among Sharpe, Roth, former TTS commissioner Phaedra Chrousos, GSA Deputy Commissioner Adam Neufeld, and others illustrate an increasingly tense atmosphere over the formation of TTS in 2015 and 2016, the investigation found.

Sharpe, according to the report, raised initial concerns with the IG about misuse of the ASF on Dec. 3, 2015, shortly after Roth circulated a draft of a plan that would tap FAS as a "primary source of funding" for TTS. Sharpe, according to the IG, said he had been "forced into the position where he has no choice but to respectfully non-concur" with the plans. Sharpe also told the IG that Kevin Youel Page, FAS deputy commissioner, joined him in the non-concurrence.

Sharpe again notified the IG of his concerns on March 21, 2016, when Roth issued a final order and plan to establish TTS.

Some witnesses described Sharpe as "a law and order" type, intent on following the precise letter of the law. Deputy administrator Neufeld characterized Sharpe's behavior as "bullying," and he also conveyed Roth's perception that Sharpe had a "witch-hunt mentality" when it came to TTS and its funding.

The report also quotes witnesses who describe a chilling in the relationship between Roth's office and FAS after Sharpe officially disagreed with her plans for TTS. That shift, some witnesses said, marked an attempt to micromanage Sharpe to pressure him to move on.

Roth resigned when the Trump administration took over, and Timothy Horne assumed the post of acting administrator. But the message from the Trump team on TTS was much the same as it had been under the Obama administration.

After the transition, Sharpe told the IG that he continued to fear retaliation. Sharpe said he was informed that the TTS had the support of the White House and it was Sharp's job to make the new organization work. According to the report, Sharpe told the IG "he had heard that his position would be converted to a political position, which he believed would be retaliatory."

This is in fact what happened in early June, as part of the GSA reorganization that folded TTS into FAS. The IG report does not examine the decision to convert the FAS chief's post from a senior civil service position to a political appointment.

Ultimately, Sharpe and Youel Page told staff in early June they would leave the agency, but gave no reasons publicly for their departure.

The IG has referred its investigation to the Office of Special Counsel.

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