The GSA scandal and throwback civil service culture

By now you’ve likely heard about the infamous Las Vegas convention bash during which federal civil servants at the General Services Administration indulged in various frivolities to the tune of $823,000 of your money. That conference featured, among other things, a hired professional clown — which is like Picasso hiring some guy from out of the Yellow Pages to paint a mural.

As with political sex scandals, nothing vaults a fiscal scandal into the headlines faster than photographic or video evidence. The GSA spendthrifts didn’t even have the good sense to shoot their series of “let’s joke about how we’re going to help blow money on Barack Obama’s green-stimulus initiatives” and “I’m a screw-about who’ll never be under investigation” evidence exclusively below the neck.

So here we are, with congressional investigations being launched and high-level appointees like GSA chief Martha Johnson being professionally guillotined like the patronage-appointed Marie Antoinettes they are. Are we really surprised that a leadership so unabashedly non-meritocratic has just plunged onto its own sword? I was hardly shocked when I Googled Martha Johnson’s name and the first thing I saw was a photo of her hovering over Obama’s shoulder as he signed the civil service telecommute-from-bed legislation.

By the way, only an utter fool could possibly believe that the GSA fiasco is a partisan issue, or that it started under Obama. Frittering away cash is the civil service’s original sin. When government created the very first civil service post way back when, it likely gave that person a budget and an eight-hour day, and he Houdini-ed it away before sundown. “Use it or lose it” has been the motto ever since: Find a way to max out the budget and prove the funds are needed, or they won’t be reallocated. And did the GSA ever find a way to do that.

This is more than just an isolated incident; the entire civil service culture is a throwback that’s becoming increasingly out of step with the reality of work in America and elsewhere in the world. Value for productivity is generally becoming more prevalent in the modern workforce, while the culture of outfits like the GSA continues to represent precisely the opposite.

For someone who works in the private sector, this case can make you feel like Dian Fossey watching gorillas pick insects out of each other’s fur — predictable but still strangely anthropologically fascinating. A read-through the Office of Inspector General’s management deficiency report on the 2010 Western Regions Conference only serves to illustrate the depth of the bureaucratic abyss. Leaving aside the mind reader and clown, one of the “team-building exercises” consisted of purchasing and building 24 bikes, which they planned to then donate to a charitable cause. “What could possibly go wrong?” you might ask, proving that you have obviously never worked in a government bureaucracy.

According to the OIG report: “GSA officials wanted participants to see the bicycles donated to the children of the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club during the conference. However, if the government acquires property, it may only dispose of that property pursuant to the Federal Surplus Property Donation Program — created by GSA itself to enable all federal agencies to comply with the Property Act. In order to avoid the requirements of the Property Act, GSA specified that the bicycles would remain at all times the property of the team-building provider. Even though GSA specified the bicycles were the property of the provider, GSA selected the recipient of the bicycles (from a list provided by the vendor); this action appears inconsistent with the assertion that the vendor owned the bicycles.”

Only a government agency could make me want to set fire to charity-destined bicycles as if they were proceeds of crime.

The GSA also spent $8,130 on commemorative yearbooks for attendees, $2,781 on water bottles and $3,749 on T-shirts, but the coup de grace was the commemorative coin each attendee received, each with its own velvet box, to the tune of $6,325.

You may be wondering how the idea of giving out adult equivalents of Sports Day participation medals might have come about. The OIG enlightens us: “These did not qualify as permissible awards because the coins’ design shows that they were intended to be mementos of the (Conference).” So why would they even try? As the report states, the $146,527 spent on food was unjustified because, “(w)hile purchasing food for award ceremonies is authorized, the event’s qualification as an award ceremony is weak, at best.” Aw, close but no prize – except for the ego medal in the box that looks like it was lined with Elvis Presley’s sweatsuit.

This concludes our tour of Planet GSA. Please leave your wallet behind and go back to reality.

(Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and former Fox News host who writes regularly for major publications in the U.S. and abroad. Her new book, “American Bombshell: A Tale of Domestic and International Invasion,” is available through Her website can be found at

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