WASHINGTON: A contentious congressional hearing held last week on allegedly improper General Services Administration (GSA) contracting and political activities threatened to further mar the reputation of an agency that helps oversee billions of dollars in annual government procurement, according to PR and marketing executives who specialize in government contracting.
At a March 28 US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, GSA head Lurita Doan stridently repeated in testimony previous assertions that her attempt to award a no-bid, $20,000 research contract on diversity within the GSA to Diversity Best Practices and Business Women's Network, two PR firms owned by a former business associate, may have violated GSA procedures, but was an innocent and quickly fixed mistake. She said the contract had been terminated and no money changed hands. Participating Republican members railed against the hearing as part of a "witch hunt" to unfairly impugn the GSA's reputation and that of the Bush administration as a whole.
However, GSA inspector general (IG) Brian Miller testified that Doan was, at the time, determined to award the contract to the PR firms, despite advice from GSA's then-general counsel, Alan Swendiman, who told IG investigators Doan "refused to sign the termination letter [Swendiman] prepared for her," Miller said.
Edward Blakely, GSA associate administrator for citizen services and communications, said that while no organization likes to have "bad stories" told about it, Doan and GSA workers in general are very proud of the work the agency does and that Doan did a good job of defending herself at the hearing.
"I think our reputation wasn't damaged at all," he said. "We're pleased internally with how [she] made her case. It's a political town, and given the divided government, it's just the nature of the beast that these things happen. Who knows where this story will go?"
A January 19 Washington Post article on Doan's dealings with the two PR firms triggered the committee's investigation, but this isn't the first time the GSA has been entangled in partisan politics. In 2006, David Safavian was found guilty of making false statements and obstructing investigations into his dealings with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff while Safavian was GSA chief of staff in 2002.
The hearing also delved into a contract extension to Sun Microsystems that the IG claimed should have involved more favorable pricing terms.
Eva Neumann, president of ENC Marketing & Communications, a consulting firm that specializes in federal procurement, said regardless of whether the allegations are true, they unfortunately contribute to a general perception that government contracting is mainly subject to personal connections and backroom dealing, as opposed to strict rules and regulations.
"[When people] hear about someone in government allegedly misusing their authority - and, of course, they're not guilty until proven guilty - it's a stain on all the government workers who [do] a good job and work hard to make procurement fair and equitable," Neumann said, even though most procurements are done fairly.
O'Keeffe & Co. founder Stephen O'Keeffe, whose company works extensively with government IT contractors, noted that accusations about the propriety of the GSA's actions are extremely important because the agency's basic role is to arrange for fairly bid procurement contracts throughout the US government.
"GSA has to be beyond reproach," he said. "It's not just for [the sake of] American taxpayers, but also for other agencies because [they] are looking at GSA [in] trying to make decisions about how to handle their own procurements."
Doan was also grilled about partisan activities. She was questioned about a January 26 lunchtime meeting at GSA headquarters involving herself, White House deputy director of political affairs Scott Jennings, and 40-plus Bush administration political appointees at the GSA, attending in person or via teleconference - a meeting Democratic committee members and the IG characterized as a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while on duty.
Presented with the PowerPoint presentation used at the lunchtime meeting - which identified "weak" Democratic candidates in the 2008 election - as well as statements by other meeting attendees that Doan had asked at its conclusion, "How can we help our candidates?" or words to that effect, Doan repeatedly asserted that she had no memory of what she said and couldn't comment on it.