Forgive Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri if she’s leery of the General Services Administration’s ability to police itself.
A Democrat who chairs a Senate contracting oversight panel, McCaskill sounded alarms about GSA’s spending even before it became mired in a scandal over an extravagant conference in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers nearly $1 million, including more than $20,000 worth of gift iPods, $7,000 worth of sushi rolls and a mind reader.
She plans to introduce legislation within a week that would tighten spending controls at the GSA and other Cabinet-level agencies.
All conferences and events costing more than $200,000 would need approval by upper-level management; annual reports about them would be sent to Congress, and employees under agency investigations or found to have been involved in waste, fraud or abuse of tax dollars would be denied bonuses.
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“I see it with contracting all the time,” said McCaskill, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. “You look at the contracting that went on in Iraq and Afghanistan and goes on in Homeland Security. It is stunning there has not been more of an outcry. This one captures everyone’s imagination because it’s so easy to visualize. It’s almost absurd.”
McCaskill first questioned GSA a year ago over its decision to award a four-month contract worth nearly a quarter of a million dollars to a Kansas City, Mo., public relations firm to help the agency explain a pollution problem at its federal complex in the region. In a subsequent investigation, the GSA inspector general said that the agency should recoup some of the money.
As for the 2010 Las Vegas conference, whose airfare costs alone totaled $147,000, GSA Inspector General Brian Miller told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Tuesday: "Every time we turned over a stone we found 50 more with all kinds of things crawling out."
He has said the conference could have involved bribes and kickbacks and has asked the Justice Department to begin its own investigation.
The House has held two days of hearings by two separate committees already this week, and the Senate will take the first of its swings Wednesday. The testimony of GSA officials ranged from Jeff Neely, who organized the conference and who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; to Robert Peck, the former GSA Public Buildings Service commissioner and Neely’s supervisor, who approved his subsequent bonus and was fired when the scandal emerged.
McCaskill also said that she was “not completely shocked” that Neely received a bonus even after GSA officials had become aware of the conference’s extravagance. McCaskill said that the GSA official who approved the private public relations contract for the agency’s Kansas City office received one as well.
Peck attended the conference, but he said in his House testimony Tuesday that though he was not involved in its planning or approval, “They took place on my watch. I am not here to shirk that responsibility. I am deeply disappointed by what the IG reported. I have been removed from the job I loved and I offer my personal apology that some people acted as they did. The taxpayers deserve better than this.”
In a recent letter to the Daniel Tangherlini, acting GSA administrator, McCaskill said that many of the GSA employees named in the inspector general report about the Las Vegas spending have received "substantial cash bonuses for their performance" the past two years. She wrote that her subcommittee has learned that members of the Las Vegas conference planning team, "who spent more than $100,000 just to plan the conference, including six planning meetings at the Las Vegas resort where the conference was held, received bonuses ranging from $500 to $1,500 for each individual 'in recognition' of their contribution to the conference."
Trust in government has been low for a while, and the GSA scandal could become a kind of poster child for Washington dysfunction.
"This is about the waste of taxpayer dollars, and if you can sense my anger and frustration, you should see it at home, where we have got double-digit unemployment, the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, people out of work _ twice the national average," said Rep. Jeff Denham , a Republican from California who led the Tuesday hearing.
McCaskill said it would unfair if the scandal tainted all government workers.
“There certainly are a lot of government employees who have gone into public service not for the money and who are very respectful of taxpayers’ dollars,” she said “But these guys kind of blow that image to smithereens.”