Martha N. Johnson: GSA’s new leader vs. dirty politics—the ‘Solomon Scandals’ angle

A sad and bizarre update: Here.

image Margo Danialson, Oberlin B.A., is reporter Jon Stone’s partner in crime or anti-crime in The Solomon Scandals.

She’s a 20-something real estate specialist at the government’s business agency, for which Seymour Solomon, a well-connected federal landlord, has built a rickety high-rise on the banks of the Potomac River.

Now here’s a neat little coincidence. Martha N. Johnson, Oberlin B.A.—yes, same Ohio college and a slightly similar first name—has just won confirmation as administrator of the General Services Administration, Margo’s bureaucracy shown in the left photo. The two both studied history at Oberlin, even if the fictitious Margo focused on the medieval variety and Ms. Johnson mixed history with economics and went on to Yale Business School.

imageWhat’s more, like Margo in Scandals, Ms. Johnson was up against some dirty GSA-related politics, originating in this real-life case from outside the agency. And an L word, “lease,” once again came up.

In the best tradition of old-style GSA pork barreling, a Republican senator had delayed Johnson’s confirmation as GSA administrator because the agency watched out for the taxpayers and favored a suburban location over a more costly plan to lease office space in downtown Kansas City. Oh, to get to the bottom of why Sen. Kit Bond was so keen on the leasing approach! Jon and Margo would have had a field day finding out. Was Bond—subject of a past ethics controversy—just watching out for the welfare of downtown KC in local tax matters and otherwise, nothing more? Or were campaign donations or other favors, not just civic-mindedness, also at work here? If nothing else, since I first posted this item, I’ve run across a report that a former deputy chief of staff for Bond brokered the proposed downtown project. True?

Politics, corruption and real estate matters have converged more than a few times at GSA over the years.

So a good start for Martha Johnson, who has extensive government experience at GSA and elsewhere, would be to make it easier for citizens to use the Net to track down the names of local government landlords via the Web (perhaps from within the online inventory of GSA-owned-and-leased buildings).

I’d also be curious about current laws and regulations. Back when I was poking around GSA, they required that office leases name all partners in partnerships. But corporations didn’t have to reveal major shareholders.

Interestingly, Martha Johnson has worked in the past as vice president of culture at Computer Sciences Corporation, and if she can effect changes in GSA’s organizational culture, to make it more open to the public and less open to sleazy political influences, then more power to her.

Discussing her goals, she herself mentions openness, and I hope she’ll follow through in all respects, while also pursuing other laudable ambitions, such as more innovation and greater energy efficiency.

image In a Net context, the goal of innovation can reinforce the one of openness.

Consider the past. Back in the 1970s, GSA tried to charge me thousands of dollars for lease-related data when I writing about the leasing program even though it was public information. Overcoming the agency’s bureaucracy with help from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office, I went on to find that Sen. Abraham Ribicoff had secretly and illegally held an investment in a GSA building through a partnership.

If the names associated with the lease for the Key Building had been on the Net—right next to a plain-English summary of the related regulations—and if GSA had enforced its rules, perhaps the Ribicoff transgression would not have occurred. Same concept could apply to other federal procurement.

But Web sites alone can’t reform GSA; hence, my appreciation of the need for a change in organizational culture, similar to what Ms. Johnson is said to have achieved at CSC.

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David Rothman

2 thoughts on “Martha N. Johnson: GSA’s new leader vs. dirty politics—the ‘Solomon Scandals’ angle

  1. Wow–you have proved that truth is stranger than fiction! I doubt Ms. Johnson brought the reform you had expected in light of her having to resign. I’m tired of so many government officials elected and appointed using “ethics” as a crutch for their purposes. Although I doubt all the blame lies with her but in the fact that good accounting measures are not in place.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Edith. As I see it, Ms. Johnson had good intentions but less than perfect judgment and execution. She apparently wanted to build morale but forgot that GSA is a public agency beholden to the taxpayers—no small number of whom have lost their homes or jobs. And here she was letting her employees jet off to Vegas! As someone has just observed: What happens in Vegas does not necessarily stay there.

    As for truth being stranger than fiction–well, I doubt that the current scandals have given us a speech-capable Afghan Hound capable of parodying Harry Truman at the Cosmos Club. Read the novel.

    David Rothman

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