News Without Transparency: GSA Chief Resigns Amid Reports of Excessive Spending

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This post was written in conjunction with Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey.

Earlier this week the chief of the General Services Administration resigned and two of her top deputies were fired. The Washington Post reported the shake up along with details about excessive spending and mismanagement surrounding the 2010 Western Regions Conference that triggered it.

This report would not have been possible without public access to the GSA Inspector General’s report on the conference and the help of a whistleblower.

The Washington Post highlights the following details from the GSA conference spending drawn from GSA IG Brian D. Miller’s “scathing” report on the conference:

  • A total conference cost of $823,000.
  • “$130,000 in travel expenses for six scouting trips”
  • “$5,600 for three semi-private catered in-room parties” including a “$2,000 party in [Public Buildings Service chief] Peck’s loft suite”
  • A “$31,208… ‘networking’ reception [that] featured a $19-per-person artisanal cheese display and $7,000 of sushi.”
  • “$44 per person daily breakfasts”
  • “$75,000 for a ‘team-building’ exercise — the goal was to build a bicycle”
  • “$146,000 on catered food and drinks”
  • “$6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes to reward all participants for their work on stimulus projects”
  • “employees received “yearbooks” with their pictures, at a cost of $8,130”

The Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 mandates that reports such as this one be made publicly available online. Specifically, an amendment offered by then-Representative Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) requires IGs to post copies of audit reports to their websites within one day of their release.

The Senate considered a similar bill before eventually passing the House version. The Sunlight Foundation supported that bill and praised a provision similar to the Gillibrand amendment.

The Washington Post article states that Miller credits Susan Brita, a GSA deputy administrator, for blowing the whistle on the wasteful spending. Without her tip, the IG report and subsequent Post article might not have been possible.

Internal whistleblowers often play critical roles in identifying and eliminating government waste, but many would-be whistleblowers stay quiet in fear of the retaliation they may face for their actions. Last summer, the Advisory Committee on Transparency held an event focused on encouraging and protecting federal whistleblowers. More recently, a Senate committee moved to strengthen whistleblower protections.

It is also worth noting that the GSA is far from the only government agency to experience spending irregularities. The Sunlight Foundation tracks discrepancies in funding information between USAspending.gov and the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, and the results are sometimes shocking. For example, in 2010, we found $1,306,120,795,761 of funding discrepancies.

—– “The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.

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