Conference investigation leaves some questioning GSA IG's aggressive tactics

Tuesday - 9/4/2012, 2:40am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The General Services Administration's inspector general found no evidence of extravagant expenses at the SmartPay Training Conference held last month in Nashville. But the preliminary investigation by GSA IG Brian Miller's staff is leaving some resentful of and objecting to their tactics.

On the evening of Aug. 1, Steven Heckler, a special agent for the IG, traveled to the Gaylord Hotel in Nashville where GSA was holding the event. GSA IG Brian Miller had called for an investigation after Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, raised concerns over the SmartPay conference at a hearing earlier that day.

According to a draft internal GSA memo obtained by Federal News Radio and a statement from the IG's office, it was after 11 p.m. when Heckler went to question David Shea, GSA's director of the Charge Card Management Office and the senior official in charge of the conference, about the costs of the event.

There are conflicting accounts about what happened next.

Two sides of the story

After the event, James Hudson, GSA's director of Congressional and Industry Stakeholder Affairs and the agency's congressional liaison, sent a draft memo to Mary Davie, acting commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, describing details of that night from Shea's perspective.

"Mr. Shea awoke to a violent knocking on his door. As Mr. Shea was fast asleep, he is uncertain as to exactly what the person violently knocking on his door said, but he distinctly recalls being led to believe that the individual or individuals were representing law enforcement," the memo said.

Hudson's memo and the IG's office disagree on the exact time of Hudson's arrival at Shea's room. Hudson wrote Shea was awoken "on or around 11:30 p.m." Sarah Breen, a GSA IG spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement to Federal News Radio, Heckler got to the Gaylord at approximately 8:30 p.m. and conducted his initial investigation before knocking on Shea's door "around 11 p.m."


Mr. Shea ... indicated that he did not

appreciate being rudely ambushed in the

middle of the night to discuss a matter that

could have easily waited until the

morning.
— Draft GSA Memo

According to Hudson's memo, when Shea opened the door, Heckler displayed his badge, identified himself from the GSA IG's office, and asked to come into Shea's room to talk about the SmartPay conference. Shea consented. Heckler also asked a Gaylord hotel security guard to accompany him into the room.

Hudson's memo said Heckler then read Shea his Miranda rights and questioned him about the conference.

Breen said that was not the case. "He did not read the GSA official his Miranda rights because there was no reason to. The GSA official declined to be interviewed, so the OIG special agent left," she said.

Hudson's memo details the conversation Shea said he had with Heckler.

"Mr. Shea then inquired as to whose authority Investigator Heckler was acting upon. Investigator Heckler indicated he was in Nashville at the request of GSA IG Brian Miller and that IG Miller wanted the interview to take place that night," the memo stated. "Mr. Shea, at this point, indicated that he did not appreciate being rudely ambushed in the middle of the night to discuss a matter that could have easily waited until the morning. Investigator Heckler became agitated, raised his voice and stated he had driven five hours from Atlanta to conduct the interview. Mr. Shea revoked consent and requested that Investigator Heckler leave his room."

Breen, the IG's spokeswoman, contradicted Hudson's memo with regards to how far Heckler originally traveled.


The investigator's knocking on his door at

11:30 at night may not be nice and it may

be some violation of a 'don't be mean'

policy at GSA, but it's not a violation of

Shea's constitutional rights ...
— former Justice Dept. lawyer

"An OIG special agent was already in Tennessee on an assignment, so he was tasked with going to Nashville to conduct a preliminary investigation on the use of funds at the conference," Breen said.

Hudson's memo said Heckler "demonstrated a reluctance to leave by not proceeding to the exit as requested. Given his failure to comply with the request, Mr. Shea grew concerned that Investigator Heckler was considering elevating the level of confrontation. At this time, Mr. Shea requested that security officer [Charles] Robinson contact the Nashville police. Upon hearing his request of security officer Robinson, Investigator Heckler left the room as requested."

As of 2:30 p.m. the following day, Heckler had not talked to Shea or anyone on his staff about the conference, according to Hudson's memo. "If the questions Investigator Heckler intended to ask were so relevant and necessary, why didn't he wait to interview Mr. Shea in the morning?"

Results of the Investigation

An internal email from GSA IG Miller to GSA officials and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, obtained by Federal News Radio, said the IG's office found no problems with the SmartPay conference. Breen also confirmed the preliminary IG investigation found no problems with the conference.

Brian Miller, inspector general, GSA

In the email, Miller stated, "The special agent interviewed hotel managers who confirmed no GSA employees were staying in the presidential suites at the Gaylord hotel and that no GSA money paid for the presidential suites. Additionally, the committee expressed concern over whether any GSA money or employees were in anyway involved with the General Jackson showboat. The agent determined that the cruise was not GSA related and did not observe anyone readily identifiable as a GSA employee disembarking from the boat."

At the hearing on Aug. 1, Denham questioned a GSA official testifying at the hearing about a scheduled steamboat ride planned for that night — the same night as the incident between Shea and Heckler — and whether any GSA employees were staying in the $3,000 per night presidential suites at the hotel.

The IG's email stated his office still is preparing its final report, and will continue to look into the 2012 and 2011 SmartPay conferences.

The investigation is part of the IG's continuing efforts to root out waste, fraud and abuse at the agency in the wake of the Western Regions Conference spending scandal that caused the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and others in April.

David Shea, Office of Charge Card Management, GSA

In an email statement to Federal News Radio, a GSA spokeswoman said, "GSA, under the new leadership, will continue to foster a cooperative relationship with the Office of the Inspector General. We strongly support OIG's efforts in identifying fraud and waste in the agency, and look forward to continuing to work together to ensure that GSA is operating as efficiently as possible."

Denham told Federal News Radio he appreciated the quick work by the IG's office to investigate costs associated with the SmartPay conference, but he said GSA must do more.

"I won't be satisfied until I see real transparency and reform, and I will continue to work with the committee and with other members of Congress to take money and resources away from GSA so they are not able to repeat their mistakes," Denham said in an email statement. "I anticipate these measures will be taken before the year's end."

Reactions

The entire experience has left Shea shaken.

"Mr. Shea stated that he has worked for the federal government for 27 years, at three agencies, and has a spotless record, but now is beginning to wonder if continued federal employment is worth it, if, as appears to be the case, being a federal employee requires is [sic] that you submit to jack-booted secret police style tactics by individuals evidently on the authority of the inspector general," Hudson wrote in the memo.

Multiple attempts by Federal News Radio to contact Shea for comment were unsuccessful.

"The memorandum does not reflect the views of GSA leadership. GSA will review the issues discussed in the memo and work with the OIG," said a GSA official, who requested anonymity. "The author of the memo is not the director of congressional affairs for the agency and is not the direct supervisor of David Shea."

Two law enforcement experts say Heckler's actions were totally within the law.

A former cabinet agency IG, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation, said it's in the "purview of the agency to conduct an investigation at whatever time is necessary. Typically, agents do most of their interviewing during working hours, but it is not necessarily out of the ordinary to do something after hours if it's warranted."

A former federal prosecutor, who also requested anonymity, said Heckler's actions may have been rude, but they were not unlawful.

"The investigator's knocking on his door at 11:30 at night may not be nice, and it may be some violation of a ‘don't be mean' policy at GSA, but it's not a violation of Shea's constitutional rights and sounds to me like the agent went beyond what he needed to do," the former Justice Department lawyer said.


I have a great deal of respect for Brian Miller and his office. Brian Miller is a fair-minded guy. I think he approaches cases in a fair and impartial way.
— Former Inspector General
I've been to his [Shea's] conferences and they are run very well. If he shares something, I'd put money on it that it's accurate.
— Barney Brasseux, former GSA dep. administrator

The former IG also said the IG's office seemed to have acted appropriately and may have been concerned that waiting until morning would have negatively impacted the investigation.

"I have a great deal of respect for Brian Miller and his office," the former IG said. "Brian Miller is a fair-minded guy. I think he approaches cases in a fair and impartial way. That's his mantra."

IG spokeswoman Breen said special agents work when required and investigating the SmartPay conference at night was warranted.

"[I]n light of abuses we found with the GSA Western Regions Conference, we believed it was important to resolve these concerns immediately, and the investigation did that," Breen said.

A spokeswoman for the Gaylord Hotel in Nashville declined to comment on the incident.

GSA employees, who also requested anonymity, said Shea's experience is disheartening and scary. Sources said the IG investigator's actions show a presumed guilt of GSA employees, which casts an unfair shadow on workers.

Barney Brasseux, a former GSA deputy administrator, said Shea is one of the most honest federal employees he's ever met during his 30-year federal career.

"I couldn't think of a better person to run the SmartPay program than David Shea," Brasseux said. "I've been to his conferences and they are run very well. If he shares something, I'd put money on it that it's accurate."

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