Beyond GSA ‘crats at play: Scrutinize office leasing

Tax dollars at work, GSA style

Angry taxpayers are buzzing over the organizational “culture” at the General Services Administration, the federal procurement agency.

I don’t mean Chaucer, Mozart or Van Gogh. Enjoy this spoof video for a GSA conference—rudely picked up by ABC News and others. Hey, you helped pay for it.

GSA was supposed to change under Martha Johnson, recently ousted as administrator. It didn’t despite her good intentions.

She was up against the old GSA culture portrayed in The Solomon Scandals. Although dark and satirical suspense fiction, Scandals in effect is also about what major newspapers didn’t print several decades ago.

imageDid you know, for example, that the late Sen. Abraham Ribicoff actually held a secret investment in a CIA-occupied building, a story reported on the NBC Nightly News but not in the big Washington dailies? You won’t find one mention of Ribicoff by name in Scandals. But you will understand how big GSA landlords could gouge the taxpayers and co-opt politicians, judges and the news media through friendships and business dealings. Ribicoff himself sat on a committee overseeing GSA yet continued nongovernment investments with the same federal landlords.

Are similar misdoings happening this very moment at GSA and elsewhere? I can see mixed indicators here. On one hand, for example, the agency’s Public Buildings Service figured heavily in the scandals swirling around GSA’s lavish partying in Las Vegas. On the other hand, fans of the fired PBS administrator say he is clean and is not a sleazy big-spender in his personal life. That said, having looked over hundreds of GSA leases in my own time as an independent investigative reporter, I can think of more than a few ways to rig a contract quietly without people at the very top of the agency being all the wiser.

Given the flagrant breaking of rules in Las Vegas and the contempt for GSA’s mission of promoting efficiency in procurement, the media should do the same as I did—and systematically scan lists of building owners and other vendors, as well as additional documents.

Investigators should go beyond basic records; examine corporate stockholder lists as well as detailed partnership listings. Maybe, just maybe, today’s equivalents of Ribcoff are involved, one reason for the press to ask congressional overseers of GSA about their possible real estate investments. But I would also look see where ex-leasing officials and other contracting people in PBS ended up, with or without legislative safeguards.

Simply as a matter of sound investigative procedure and without any assumption of misfeasance or malfeasance or any other wrongdoing, the press and government sleuths should examine the lease awards and other contracts directly or indirectly involving real estate people with whom Bob Peck, the just-fired PBS commissioner, was associated. Same for certain other bureaucrats. To what extent is the GSA Public Building Service like the Pentagon—full of gold-plated revolving doors and accompanying corruption? In  place of Dan Tangherlini, GSA’s acting administrator, I would ask the agency’s office of the inspector general to give loving attention to those matters and to other major programs through which the GSA handles the spending of billions of tax dollars.

Let me conclude with a reminder that GSA has its share of honest people, including, I would hope, Susan Brita, the deputy administrator, who is said to have acted as a whistleblower. What’s more, while other Obama appointees may not have been as vigilant as they could have been, certain GSA bureaucrats’ contempt for the public is hardly a recent phenomenon, as Scandals makes clear in its depiction of the nuts and bolts of bureaucratic corruption. In Scandals I compared GSA to the Augean stables in ancient myth; don’t expect the place to be cleaned up overnight. We’ll have to reroute the Alpheus and Peneus, and some of the dung just might come from earlier administrations or Capitol Hill.

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David Rothman

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