Political Reality and Federal Employee Conferences

By on April 5, 2012 in Current Events with 42 Comments

An event that may be seen from inside of a federal agency can turn into a political disaster. GSA is providing one example as to how this can occur.

In an era with the real rate of unemployment running at about 18%, government deficits totaling more than $15 trillion and growing at more than $1 trillion each year, and a presidential election year in which the current administration is under fire for setting records for spending more money in the shortest time than any administration in history, a lavish conference featuring a federal agency spending money like it has no end is bound to create political problems.

After spending more than $800,000 on a conference in Las Vegas that received considerable negative publicity,  a new video has surfaced that shows a GSA employee doing a pretty good rap/reggae song that, however unintentional, portrays the agency and its concern about government deficits and concern for those impacted by a recession in a very negative light. The employee made the video as an entry in a talent contest among the four regional offices represented at the conference in October 2010.

The music video shows the employees bragging about how they spend money and are immune from government oversight.

After the press learned about the lavish conference expenses, the agency administrator and other senior officials resigned or were fired. The newly discovered clips below are from the General Services Administration’s October 2010 Western Region Conference in Las Vegas, NV. It was played on October 28, 2010 at the “Capstone Dinner Event.”

The irony of the new video can be captured in a short segment in which a GSA employee who dreams about becoming Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service sings about buying field offices supplies and awarding bonuses. The one line that will capture the most attention: “Donate my vacation, love to the nation, I’ll never be under OIG investigation.”

After the song ends, the video shows an the award ceremony where the GSA employee in the video is, as part of the comedy routine, named “commissioner for a day.” In the ceremony, he was apparently jokingly referred to as replacing the commissioner of the Public Buildings Service who, ironically, was recently fired as a result of excessive spending and negative publicity surrounding the GSA conference.

To make matters worse the ceremony, undoubtedly intended to be funny and improve employee morale, may be an example of art imitating reality. The deputy commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, David Foley, says to the employee who sang in the video: “The hotel would like to talk to you about paying for the party that was held in the commissioner’s suite last night.” The presentation also referenced having to respond to congressional oversight, and Obama Administration efforts to restrict executive pay. It probably seemed funny at the time but, after the agency spent about $146,000 for catering at the conference, the comedy will come across to the public as an agency and a workforce completely isolated and unaware of the problems being faced by many voters during tough economic times.

Ironically, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson later resigned after the GSA Inspector General presented findings of abuse and waste of taxpayer dollars at the conference.

Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa did not find the video and the circumstances amusing. His office issued a press release referring to GSA’s “American Idle” and the “Winning Video Skit from Taxpayer Funded Luxury Las Vegas GSA Convention.”

The agency is now trying to recover and put out a more favorable image. In a press release, the agency stated: “This video is another example of the complete lack of judgment exhibited during the 2010 Western Regions Conference. Our agency continues to be appalled by this indefensible behavior, and we are taking every step possible to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

No doubt, the agency is hoping that the problem will now go away and that the next budget given to the agency by Congress will not be one that assumes the agency has been given too much money and that the budget should be substantially reduced.

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources.

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  1. kevmeist says:

    I have to admit that I did NOT see these types of conferences going on in my agency. I did attend the likes of SHARE. SHARE consists of technical sessions all day long. Sure, we stayed in a hotel (according to PerDiem rules and claimed PD for food). But, that was it.

  2. hogyld says:

    Meet the new boss, he’s the same as the old boss.

  3. danving queen says:

    I’d like to take a moment to complain that due to budget cuts, we no longer have access to hot water in the federal building where I work. No hot water! And the floor on which the GSA field office is located, the bathroom is prohibited for use by the general public. Thanks GSA, for screwing all of the rest of us, on an epic, unsanitary level.

  4. JOVARN says:

    The VHA spends that and more on wasted conferences than the GSA and nobody cared . Why was there no uproar when The VHA sent close to 3000 employees to Vegas for the PACT conference? You do the math, Air fare Hotel at the Venetian per-diem conference rooms and all the other associated expenses. The conference was a waste of time and could have easily been done on V-tell. The “Political Reality “is that it’s not popular to attack the VHA even when they waste Millions of dollars. And the wasted travel is only the tip of the iceberg with the VHA and how they waste money. The unions often report the waste and mismanagement, but those complaints fall on deft ears.  The VHA should not have been excluded from sequestration, just by improving their organizational structure they could easily reduce the top level employees by 10% with no loss to patient care .  Many of the VACO departments, to include the Nursing departments are bloated; the hiring practices and salaries of the Nurses are not conducive to hiring the best bedside nurses available.  Installing electronic time and attendance monitoring alone would save the VHA millions of dollars and correct many of the payroll problems that currently exist.   But that not a good sound n\bite so noboday cares. 

  5. MoreToTheStory says:

    It ALL comes down to simple LACK OF OVERSIGHT by OMB, OPM, MSPB and IG Offices. Since the mid 1980s agencies began obtaining more and more delegations of authority with the objective of providing decision-making authorities at the lowest possible levels of federal agencies. Agency HR offices were the biggest complainers at that time openly lobbying for greater recruiting and examining authorities so they could find better qualified candidates for their agencies. Since then, we have seen a continuing pattern of misuse, abuse, issues and concerns involving Title 5 civil service rules and regulations by agency HR officials involving. These abuses by HR officials has extended beyond recruiting and examining functions and into other programs such as incorrect enrollment of federal employees to CSRS and FERS retirement plans by HR Offices throughout the government beginning in mid 1980s requiring a legislative bailout by congress act to straighten out government wide mess.  As a safeguard and a strategy to enhance the professionalization of HR functions the HR community lobbied to promote HR Officers at all levels of management both in agency decision-making i.e at the table and grade-wise to the SES level at the agency level i.e. Chief Human Capital Officers. Among a wide range of poor and narrow HR practices was the illegal rule Chief Human Capital Officers collaborated with OPM officials in 2000 allowing agencies to exclude veteran preference eligibles from being considered for Federal Career Intern Program vacancies from 2001 to 2010 when it was terminated based on a series of federal court rulings that this HR practice violated the veterans preference act. Following HR’s lead, agency acquisition management offices sought and obtained greater acquisitioning authorities which quickly resulted in a rash of improper and illegal acquisition snafus. As an added safeguard the acquisition community with support from the HR community began requiring acquisitioning applicants and incumbents to hold a four-year degree beginning in early 1990s. This strategy was supposed to “professionalize” the acquisition corps ensuring better/higher educated professionals with integrity and law-abiding character, etc. etc. would better exercise acquisitioning authorities.  Despite this widespread delegations of authorities the aforementioned agencies OMB, MSPB, OPM and even IG Offices have failed to provide adequate oversight of these decentralized functions throughout government. This is despite the fact that the use of technology today can check ALL the actions of one function such as ALL HR actions by type of action government wide to assess and identify trends or patterns, issues, etc. by agency and subagency within 24 hours! Bottom line, problems, issues, improprieties, illegalities are in large part the result of adequate oversight by OMB, MSPB, OPM and IG Offices to deter and prevent the growing trend of low-level incidents of misconduct i.e. “failure to follow instructions,” “failure to follow established procedures,” etc.  Folks, this is not rocket science. For this reason failed oversight by these agencies appears to be more willful than the lack of leadership and resources.   

  6. Uruk-hai says:

    Ha! You think the GSA is something, wait till you see what they are doing at the DFAS in Indianapolis, Indiana. They make the GSA look like the boy scouts. But it runs even deeper in DFAS where you have Croneyism to the hilt, GS jobs getting name changes and shuffled around to make it look like they are cutting then hiring hoards of contractors under new job titles…making their department too big to fail. Its pathetic.

  7. maxie5000 says:

    Understand two things if you will. 1) These are all administrators and supervisors, regular govt employees don’t get invited to these lavish shindigs.  The must stay at the office and work.  2) The new management are doing exactly as the older management did.  Who do you think taught them how to hide the money in the budget, or take it away without it being missed?

  8. max5000 says:

    What’s funny is that this type of thing goes on in all govt’ agencies.  The management here at my VA made a similar video for one of the retiring administrators, poking fun at the fact that even though she was retiring, they would not have to give back the money for her FTE because her title was “ambiguous” and made up, so the govt’ couldn’t tell what she was and what she got paid.  They played it at her retirement party, and it got a lot of laughs and head nodding.

  9. Outraged Fed says:

    I totally agree with the comments posted by Honest Broker, Congress/the OIG should next be reviewing how the GSA spent all those millions of dollars in Recovery money administered by the Public Buildings Service. 

  10. Chris says:

    I have been with the government for more than 30 years between Military service, contracting and now a civil servant.  I am sure if we look at all Federal agencies we will find waste and mis use of gov. funds.  Now to the level of GSA I’m not sure.  But we need to remember that not only are we tax payers ourselfs, but we have a duty to provide the American people with the best possible service. 

  11. RicknATL says:

    What is really idiotic, is that the way the system is set up, if an agency doesn’t spend the money in its budget, their/that budget gets cut the next year. Thus, we end up with agencies spending money on really stupid things, instead of support for the employees. Something which is really lacking.

  12. lazycs says:

    Look this just adds more fuel to fire. Fortunately the GSA administrator resigned unlike Holder who has tried to justify his extravagance

  13. Retired 44 says:

    Federal agency administrators think by arranging these lavish conferences in places like Las Vegas are in line with the private sector to promote employee bonding, performance awards and educating the troops are acceptable. Agency heads always fail to realize they work and are accountable to the Federal Government, not a private entity. The media always gets a hold of this. 

    Attended many of these conferences and came back to work with nothing more than jet lag, a hangover, and a hefty airline, per Diem and hotel bill which I promptly submitted for payment.

    The initial intent for these conferences are usually legitimate, but they always get of out hand by agency morons, who plan stupid perks and dumb additions (Mind Readers, booze, lavish meals and drink, DUH?)
    Where is the oversight by agency heads?  When will they learn?

    • Faceless Washington Bureaucrat says:

      If you have ever tried to arrange a conference, you would understand why conferences go to “lavish” locations. Its because they are the venues with facilities large enough to host conferences, they are typically transportation hubs, and there is competition between venues because of the size of the markets. Some people would like it better if all conferences were held in Newark in February and the attendees were forced to wear sack cloth and eat MREs but this might cost even more. As far as food and beverage, I too have never been to a Federal government sponsored conference where the government paid for alcohol. Lavish meals and mind readers are equally uncommon. Break servce (over-priced food and drinks) is often negotiated as part of the conference spending in exchange guest rooms and meeting rooms are frequently comped. The choice is to have a conference with break serice or pay close to the same amount for a conference without break service. Frankly, if the people of the US think that we should not have conferences, so be it. Unlike you, I have never gone to a conference for my own entertainment. Oh, and by the way, maybe if you hadn’t imbibed so much at the conferences you would have got more out of them?

  14. Retired Labor Relations says:

    Disgusting isn’t strong enough…..I am appalled at the attitude of these seemingly young employees…is this a generational thing in terms of lack of respect for the taxpayer or are they stupid? In any event, everyone involved should be fired immediately. We have GSA standards for conferences and these GSA employees should have known about these standards; we have ethics requiements regarding public trust and GSA employees should have known about these requrements; I am positively upset by the blatant disegrad by leadership and the employees. We are in trouble if the new hires act this way….we served in our 30 plus careers protecting the taxpayer—I know the leadership and peers working with me in many agencies were committed to the taxpayer. What is happening…is the WH setting the bad example of who gives a blank about wasting taxpayer money? Charge: No longer serve the public trust; fraud waste abuse of public funds; inefficiency of the service. What a disgrace. If you observe this misconduct in your agency you have an obligation to call the Inspector General in to  report this behavior …..I believe that the administrative leadership from the adminstrator to the first line supervisors should repay the taxpayers for this travesty…this culture of anything goes in secular society is spilling over to workplaces…guess what young worker …there is such a thing as right and wrong and I guess you have to learn the hard way. Values, morals, and doing the right thing are still important othrwise you are no better than an animal.

  15. Railasinatas says:

    Ohhhhh what a tangled web they weaved… None of this is new.  If I recall correctly, an attempt to expose this kind of messiness was made back in 1997 but instead of a full investigation all of the whistleblowers were fired…Oh well…

  16. steve5656546346 says:

    What is different about this, and so many other debacles concerning which no firm action was taken (e.g., Fast and Furious, Solyndra) is:

    1.  There was no direct link to ideology in this case.

    2.  It is no direct link to Obama nor his closest friends.

    3.  It’s an election year.

  17. Tired and Retired Fed says:

    I am a bit amused about the furor surrounding this event.  While costly (probably inflation) and not correct, this is no more than GSA has done for many years (including the 34 years I worked there.  And, if we looked closely, this is probably no more than many of the antics that large Federal agencies frequently get up to.  Why, you may ask?  You already know.  It’s the nature of the beast. Federal agencies are headed by political appointees, not because of their experience, business acumen, or commitment, but because they were large contributors to Presidential and Congressional campaigns.  Add in an unnecessary SES management layer, and create an environment hostile to whistle blowers,and you have a recipe for disaster where power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    • Retired Fed says:

       My agency sponsored management conferences in fancy locations. Were these managers really learning how to manage employees or how to have a good time?

    • Deptofbozos says:

      Yes and it won’t get any better will it? Front page of today’s paper “Old Dominion University after 35 years will no longer make students pass writing exam.” Provost says “It wasn’t really working.” Oh really??? What is really not working are students can’t pass the test. I worked with a, and I’ll be nice, professional who was yapping one day about what she would do with her degree as a Contracting Officer in regards to a payment. I asked her what college she went too and she didn’t even know the name. These are the so called political appointees we get and just like education being dumbed down all these years so it goes right with all this govt nonsense. These are the people running our country. Scary? You bet!! But who can tackle all this mess or even know where to begin? 

    • Retired LR says:

      So this makes it ok? Pleaseee

  18. Fedemploy6 says:

    Let’s just see if they are serious about changing the image they created, as in what they do in Nashville,TN conference this month (or next).

  19. pvarnak says:

    I agree with your article and agree that someone whould be held accountable and that has happened from the top down, as it should.  However, I cannot understand how this debachle made the “fleecing of America” section of NBC news and the Mexico vacation taken by the President’s daughter with several classmates and 25 secret service agents, all at taxpayer expense doesn’t qualify for the same type reporting.  There have been very few newspapers that have reported this waste and fraud by the White House, and the latest article in a  Cleveland newspaper explains that they were asked by the White House to kill the news release.  What’s fair for Federal employees should also be fair game for the White House.

    • Kdk17 says:

      This is the price we pay for expecting a family to live in a bubble for 4-8 years.  Do you really expect 2 young girls to be locked up in the White House for that long.  Get over it.

      • Noway says:

        I am sure no one expects them to live in bubble, just pay for their vacations out of their own pockets.

        • maxie5000 says:

          Why would the Obamas now have to pay for their vacations when no president or their family has had to do so before this?

      • You are nuts says:

        Since when does a 14-15 year old CHILD need to go to Mexico for spring break?  It is not unlike that show on cable about “My Sweet 16th Birthday.”  Totally absurd.  I agree the press should leave the kids alone – but the parents should be exercising some judgment…. when it is at tax payer expense.  Let them travel to a national park or something local.  Mexico on spring break is for college students.

      • Guest says:

        Where’s the “shared sacrifice” Mr. Obama called for? I doubt most federal or private sector employees could afford to send their children with their classmates on a Mexican vacation. A lot of American citizens are having to live in an environment much worse than the White House “bubble.”

  20. Reality Check says:

    It’s a sad shame.  I see so many people in the Federal agency where I work (not at GSA) and other Federal agnecies working to cut expenses – also see important Federal assistance programs reduction in funds – and these programs help people in TRUE NEED.  Perhaps the people at GSA, who so arrogantly WASTED money and bragged about it in the video, go to these places where people are suffering because of the economic problems in this country - and be ordered to do community work.

  21. Deptofbozos says:

    He looks about as classy as some of the folks I worked with. Our command had no dress code, yea get real right, and someone would wonder if we had hookers working vice supposedly “professionals”. I got so sick in that environment I resigned. The federal govt is filled with idiots and I see no end in sight. There are many good workers but what they have to put up with in this day and age is nonsense. I wish them the best.

    • Current Fed says:

      I hate to say this but I agree with your assessment. So sad for the 25% educated, qualified, hard working professionals trying to do a good job for the nation.

      The federal government is  riddled with less qualified people (many with nothing more than GED or HS education) not up to date or competitive, just riding out their time on the govt welfare system, protected by veterans preference points and other protections. The younger group has little work ethic, is obese and unhealthy, dress badly and think they can never be fired. Most new hires are enlisted military- I wont elaborate. I would say that a quarter of federal employees being paid GS 11, GS 12, and above are not qualified or professional. It has discouraged me as I have higher standards than what I see around me for the most part (I applaud the good employees- what do we do if they all leave??)

      • fedbens says:

        This is just my impression, but it seems agencies bend over backwards to hire retired military, both enlisted and officer.

        Some time ago, there was an O-6 (full colonel) where I worked, near retirement.  An opening came up for deputy commander, SES grade.  There was (maybe still is) a DoD regulation that a retired military could be hired only if he had been retired 6 months or longer.  Less than 6 months required a waiver from the agency and another waiver from the Office of Personnel Management.  Guess what?

        The colonel retired and applied for the job.  In less than 5 weeks, HR evaluated all applicants, forwarded the cert to the selecting official, and the selecting official (a one-star general) selected… the newly retired colonel! 

        It may be the waivers were granted in a remarkably short time, but I choose to believe this selection had a bad smell!

      • max5000 says:

        I have found that the unqualified people hired by the federal govt tend to BE THE ONES WITH THE DEGREES.  For example I know a lady that trained everyone in the lab division she currently works in, knows everything inside and out. When the supervisor left, she applied for the job.  It was given to a “professional” with a degree in social work.  Now what would a social worker know about chem labs and lab results? Nothing.  But when she inquired she was told she didn’t have a degree, so they had to give it to the lady with one.  Then 3 weeks later asked her to train the professional.  This type of behavior is rampant in the fed gov. people getting jobs they aren’t qualified for, just because they have a degree, even if the degree has nothing to do with what they are supposed to be doing or supervising.

  22. Guest says:

    I wonder who the Contracting Officer was that executed the contract for the event?  

    • msgrowan says:

      When it comes to contracting, it should be remembered that GSA’s Public Buildings Service is largely funded by a revolving fund, i.e., space rental charges and other related payments made to GSA by Federal agencies occupying Federally-owned and/or operated space.  As such, PBS relies only minimally on GSA’s congressionally-authorized appropriated funds, which fact may engender the free-spending and loose-contracting ways described regarding this conference.  Memories seem to be short; several years ago GSA’s Federal Supply Service got into equally hot water over similarly poor use of the revolving fund which FSS used to fund its procurement operations for Federal agency customers under the GSA supply schedule.  It appears that the lesson of that debacle was forgotten or blown off by PBS.

    • Deptofbozos says:

      I wonder if the dude in the video is a citizen of this country……….. Contracting Officer is probably still new to the job……. job training, ya know??????

  23. Honest Broker says:

    Unintentional?  Are you kidding me?  It is my personal opinion that this was a deliberate, negligent, pre-planned and knowingly criminal series of actions.  GSA members must be held accountable for their reckless behavior and arrogance, should be indicted, and finally brought up on criminal charges.  Go after their personal funds and invite the IRS in to see what unclaimed income needs to be accounted for.  This might even be a good example of a “culture of corruption”.  Something tells me this is just the tip of the iceberg…

  24. guestwo says:

    Yeah, I bet all those  people at the unemployment offices will die laughing.  “the agency spent about $146,000 for catering at the conference”
    And I bet the employees in the video all got awards.