Ethics vs General Services: Why Can't One Obama Department Investigate Another?

Ethics vs General Services: Why Can't One Obama Department Investigate Another?

What are the requirements for being a Barack Obama appointee?

  1. Make sure that your ethics are questionable.
  2. Always be ready to be thrown under the bus if necessary.
  3. Make sure you leave quietly, so he can ignore the corrupt practices you have instituted.

Which brings us to Martha Johnson and the story of how Obama’s Administration covers up its malfeasance.

Johnson was appointed head of the General Services Administration in 2010 and resigned in 2012 after the scandal of the GSA Las Vegas Conference in 2010 was revealed. The conference cost more than $800,000, and included $75,000 on team building exercises, $6,000 on commemorative coins and $6,000 on canteens, keychains, and T-shirts.

Johnson had been a trusted Democratic party hack for some time; she worked on the Clinton-Gore transition team, served as an Associate Deputy Secretary of Commerce from 1993 until 1996, and joined the General Services Administration as chief of staff from 1996 until 2001.  Near the end of 2008, Johnson emerged as a co-leader of the Obama transition team evaluating the GSA. In 2009, Obama nominated her as head of the GSA, saying, “The dedication and intelligence that these fine public servants will bring to their respective roles gives me confidence that they will be effective and important additions to our team as we work to tackle the many challenges our nation faces.”

When she was nominated, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond placed a hold on her nomination because she hadn’t shut down the federally owned Bannister Complex after repeated requests; the GSA had known for three months that employees were getting violently ill, but Johnson kept refusing to grant interviews on the issue. Obama, furious that her nomination was held up, said:

Nobody can tell me that there’s anything particularly wrong with her. They’re blocking her because of some unrelated matter. Don’t hold this — this woman hostage. If you have an objection about my health-care policies, then let’s debate the health-care policies. But don’t suddenly end up having a GSA administrator who is stuck in limbo somewhere because you don’t like something else that we’re doing.

Flash forward to April, 2012, when Johnson resigned from the GSA; Obama now said he was “outraged” about the spending at the 2010 Las Vegas Conference.  The most naïve person might assume that Obama’s Administration would have been irate if they had known what the GSA had done in Las Vegas.

Not so fast. It has just been revealed that three days after the Las Vegas Conference, the  President’s Office of Government Ethics said the GSA’s ethics program was clean.  It appears that no one was guarding the henhouse. Patricia Zemple, associate director of the OGE’s program review division, wrote in a Nov. 2, 2010, letter to Administrator Martha Johnson and Inspector General Brian Miller: “GSA’s ethics program appears to be effectively administered and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies.”

The OGE report went on to say, “Specifically, we found that the [ethics] program was meeting the objectives for each of the required elements: financial disclosure, training, and advice and counseling. In addition, GSA’s ethics program has been enhanced by employing a number of what OGE considers to be model practices.” Yet in January, 2010, Zemple’s ethics expert Leigh Snyder had written in a memo, “GSA’s mission and history of high-profile ethics violations make it susceptible to heightened public scrutiny. As such, GSA’s ethics program should be regularly reviewed to ensure it runs effectively.”

Daniel Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, a government watchdog group, said, “It is peculiar that Patricia Zemple ignored her ethics officer’s memorandum. Somehow that ethics officer found problems. Inspector General Brian Miller found problems. But no one else at GSA or OGE found problems.”

On Aug. 2 of this year, Epstein sent a letter to President Obama asking that the Office of Management and Budget consider transferring ethics oversight duties to the agency inspectors general. The OGE refused, claiming:

The COA memorandum reflects a lack of understanding of OGE’s authorities and mission. Laws and regulations regarding appropriations, travel, personnel, and government contracts are administered by a variety of agencies and are outside OGE’s purview. OGE is not an investigatory agency, but routinely works closely with Inspectors General.

One might ask why it is too much for one Obama department to investigate another, but it seems that would be a rhetorical question.


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