An old Washington hand told me some years ago that most people in Washington are “smart.” However, he cautioned that not everyone always exhibited “judgment.”
The nexus between smarts and judgment come front and center early next week on Capitol Hill. A host of Congressional committees is set launch of series of hearings examining why the General Services Administration (GSA) blew $823,000 on over-the-top conference at a luxurious, off-the-strip Las Vegas hotel and casino. This comes as the GSA’s Inspector General (IG) referred allegations of abusive GSA spending practices to the Justice Department for a potential criminal inquiry.
This is the anatomy of the classic Washington, DC scandal. It follows a traditional script with actors cast in their respective roles. And the plotline usually goes something like this:
Government employees are accused of wrongdoing. Members of Congress from both parties howl about the allegations of impropriety. They position themselves as watchdogs of the treasury and promise to “get to the bottom” of the scandal. The lawmakers schedule hearings. But before the hearings begin, some important choreography must take place.
It starts with the daily “drip, drip, drip.” That’s followed by regular readings of the “holy smokes” quotient, which measures public outrage. These two practices are ways to “prime the pump” for the upcoming hearings. It’s kind of like “Coming Attractions” at the movie theatre. The drip, drip, drip, holy smokes quotient and pump priming exercises are designed to maximize public interest in pending Congressional hearings. Everyone involved, both investigators and the media, want audiences to see the movie trailers and exclaim “Yeah, I can’t wait until that one comes out!”
Then there are the dramatis personae:
Every movie director and novelist knows compelling characters drive plotlines. They’re defined by their frailty and bombast. Their arrogance and their aspirations – and their tragedy, too.
We know some of the characters already. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is a media star. But then there’s obscure freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA). Denham happens to chair the House Transportation panel’s Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee. The government’s buildings make up a large portion of GSA’s portfolio – hence the reason Denham’s profile could grow exponentially in the coming days. Certainly there’s a role for House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL), too. Mica’s best known in recent months for trying to get the House to approve a critical highway bill. But the House GOP leadership simply can’t muster the votes.
Finally, there are the GSA witnesses. Some have already faced punishment. None are well-known public figures. They don’t score live shots on FOX and CNN the way lawmakers do. So they start with a disadvantage in this drama.
Here’s how this all works:
The “drip, drip, drip” is a time-honored practice in Washington. Congressional investigators and others begin leaking droplets of information to the media on a daily basis. Meantime, reporters scrounge around, working sources, searching for a “smoking gun” or some tidbit to advance the story a few notches. All of this moves the “holy smokes” meter. “They did what????” sputters the public, nearly choking over the morning headlines at the breakfast table.
“Drip, drip, drip” serves multiple purposes. First, it satisfies the public’s right to know since it’s their tax dollars. In this case, we’ve learned about the GSA renting a clown suit and hiring a mind reader for the conference. In the age of YouTube, there are the videos. The conference featured a talent contest where GSA employees wrote songs and staged elaborate performances where they joked about avoiding a probe by the inspector general. There are also emails where the GSA demonstrates significant consternation about how the press might portray the conference. There’s discussion about how to discipline employees who were involved.
The “drip, drip, drip” also serves as a “pump primer,” prepping the public for the blockbuster when it hits the screen. That’s precisely what happens this week as both the House and Senate launch their hearings.
And this is when the public gets to know the characters.
Darrell Issa is one of the most high-profile members in the House of Representatives. Wielding the committee gavel, Issa’s probed the Obama Administration’s decision to approve federal assistance for green energy firm Solyndra, just before the company failed. He’s looked into the government’s controversial “Fast and Furious” program, designed to net weapons deployed in the drug trade.
Freshman Congressman Jeff Denham is not the charismatic Issa. Yet. He chairs Tuesday’s House hearing on the GSA. Few outside of Washington know Denham. But he commanded some negative press just after arriving in Washington in January, 2011. Denham drew fire after throwing a fundraising gala at the W Hotel in Washington shortly after becoming a Congressman. Some argued the event at such a ritzy venue didn’t match with the tea party values Denham espoused before coming to Washington. But Denham argued he and other lawmakers had to raise money for their campaigns. So the hearings mark Denham’s first major foray back into the spotlight since that rocky first week last year.
Most of the witnesses are bureaucrats. Martha Johnson was the GSA’s Administrator. She resigned. The government fired Bob Peck, the head of the GSA’s Public Buildings. Peck’s deputy, David Foley and the GSA’s head of the Western Region, Jeff Neely, are now on administrative leave.
Without question, Neely is the most intriguing of these figures. Neely coordinated the exuberant Las Vegas conclave.
And this is where the delineation of smarts and judgment comes into play.
For starters, Neely directed his deputies to construct a conference that would be “over the top.”
It didn’t disappoint.
There’s video of Neely on a faux red carpet at the Vegas conference telling a mock interviewer that he’s wearing “all Armani” for the event. The interviewer asks Neely what people should remember about the conference.
“What I’d like people to take home is to dispense with the notion that what’s done in Vegas stays in Vegas and really leave with what’s done in Vegas needs to be shared with everybody,” Neely says.
That ambition will be laid bare this week. But Neely may not even follow his own advice.
On Friday, Neely’s attorney informed Issa that his client wouldn’t testify and would “assert his constitutional privilege to remain silent.” But Issa responded that Neely had already accepted a subpoena to appear and that the subpoena “remains in effect.”
So we have no idea what will happen this week. But we can expect a lot of questions about a series of emails obtained by FOX involving Neely, Martha Johnson, Bob Peck, Deputy Administrator Susan Brita (who used to be staff director of the subcommittee Denham now chairs) and others.
Expect lawmakers to skip quickly to the smarts and judgment question.
In one email, Brita says Neely should receive a “3” (on a scale of 5) for his performance evaluation. Johnson says she is inclined to give Neely a “4” and defends giving him a bonus. Johnson argues Neely deserves the bonus because he was an acting regional administrator “forever.”
However, in an email from Johnson to Peck, Johnson declares that Neely has a “problematic personality.” She refers to unspecified issues with his demeanor in front of an unnamed Congressman “when were out at San Yisidro.”
San Yisidro, CA features a border crossing with Mexico and is in the district of Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA). But it’s unclear which lawmaker Johnson is referring to.
In a December, 2011 email to David Foley, Neely asserts that he expects “a 4” for his rating and says that the “annual rating process is among the truly worst aspects of being in the ses (Senior Executive Service).”
In the same email, Neely then declares that “the regions 2011 performance was pretty amazing.”
What’s striking in the emails is a lengthy back and forth over Neely’s talent and performance – and thus a discussion of smarts versus judgment. In the exchange, Johnson and Peck debate whether Neely is a “Steve Jobs” type – someone who is savvy, but doesn’t fit standard human resources paradigms.
Brita raises concerns about the disciplinary letter Neely’s superiors prepped over the conference and an employee rewards program called “Hat’s Off.” Brita called Neely a “seasoned” administrator “who is expected to display the highest standards of common sense and prudent financial management. He did neither.” She called the reprimand “not even a slap on the wrist.”
In July, 2011, Brita contends that the IG “didn’t find any agenda that would support comments about substance and important issues” at the Las Vegas conference. In addition, Brita expressed concern that “a clown suit, bikes, tuxedos, and mind reader don’t really lend themselves to a claim of a substantive conference.”
In another email Brita also frets openly about how the Washington Post might portray the conference “at a time of high unemployment.”
In mid-July, 2011, Neely crafted a couple of emails to colleagues. His tone was subdued and he told his colleagues there was “much ado” about his potential discipline. Neely predicted he was “going to get slapped around a bit” and said he was “anxious to move past this.”
“2011 not such a good year after an amazing start.”
It’s unclear what he has to say about 2012.
– Cristina Marcos contibuted to this report.