Private-sector mentality to blame in GSA scandal, senator says

Monday - 4/23/2012, 5:21am EDT

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio)

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Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)

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At four congressional hearings about the General Services Administration scandal last week, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle dispensed blame quickly and in all directions — from former GSA head Martha Johnson to former Public Buildings Service head Bob Peck — before focusing on who may end up taking the blame, PBS Region 9 commissioner Jeff Neely. Neely created a culture of lavish spending and "squashed like a bug" any employees who objected, GSA Inspector General Brian Miller testified.

Neely was excused from the hearing after he repeatedly invoked his constitutional right to not incriminate himself, and it seems increasingly likely that he would face criminal charges.

But Neely didn't plan or attend the Las Vegas conference by himself, leading many lawmakers to wonder aloud: What kind of agency culture could allow this to happen? And, unlike the bipartisan outrage about the conference itself, answers about its "cultural roots" fall strictly along party lines.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who attended the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, told In Depth with Francis Rose on Friday that a culture of wasteful spending started with President Barack Obama and trickled down to feds.

"One of the things we have here is a culture of an administration that has said that government spending creates jobs," Turner said. "What we've found with obviously some of the things they were spending on is they were stimulating China and Las Vegas and parties."

But Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who attended the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing, told Rose the problem wasn't that GSA carried a prevailing federal government mentality, but that it didn't carry it enough.

"I think a lot of the people in GSA came out of the private sector," Cardin said. "And if you're a private real estate firm and you have clients, not taxpayers, and you are trying to impress your clients, [then] you do extravagant things. It's done in the business sector every day. So I think it was the culture brought over from the private sector into the government agency. GSA said, 'Look, we're a huge real estate operation. Why can't we do something that reflects our size, and what would be standard in the real estate industry?' The problem is that dismisses the target altogether of the accountability of a public agency that owes its allegiance to taxpayers, not clients, and needs to get a much better handle of spending taxpayer money."

Cardin said there was no indication this mentality spread beyond the Public Buildings Service, although he supported congressional moves to inspect conference lists from other agencies.

Both lawmakers said that whatever cultural factors allowed the spending to take place, Congress must institute measures to ensure that even if federal workers want to spend this way, they can't.

"The bottom line is this is a great example of what people fear is happening with their taxpayers dollars," Turner said.

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