Political Reality and Federal Employee Conferences

If someone came up with a script to embarrass a federal agency, it could not match what GSA has unintentionally done in conveying a negative image of the federal government to the public as the nation is starting to recover from a severe recession.

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.

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. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47