At last Monday’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing about a lavish Las Vegas conference for the General Services Administration, cameras clicked rapid-fire and reporters scrambled for seats as a lineup of GSA officials were sworn in. The circus-like atmosphere culminated with one official, Jeff Neely, invoking his Fifth Amendment right, and committee members from both sides of the aisle expressing outrage at the GSA scandal.
Two days later, the mood had passed.
At the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and ranking member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) soberly questioned two witnesses, neither of whom attended the now-infamous conference. Six reporters and a few attendees from the general public sat among dozens of empty seats.
The hearing was over in 53 minutes. Afterward, acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini enjoyed a warm conversation with Durbin and Moran, punctuated by laughter.
A president is often awarded credit and assigned blame for what happens at federal agencies, even when he or his aides had no actual involvement in the decisions made, because the president chooses the political leadership for the agencies.
In this case, Republicans hope that tales of the mismanagement of taxpayer dollars will also cut into popular support for Democratic policy positions, which tend to favor government funding to stimulate the economy.
“I don’t think in [and] of itself the scandal will hurt [President Barack] Obama, but it plays to a larger narrative of his ineptitude at management of our federal dollars. Solyndra, GSA, other green programs all have had significant spending with little to no oversight from appointees made by him,” a GOP aide said.
In responding to the revelations, Democrats have sought to channel blame away from the president.
For instance, less than two minutes into Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer’s opening statement at a Wednesday hearing on the scandal, the California Democrat offered a detailed history of improper actions by GSA officials during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Democrats have largely avoided, at least in public, attacking Republicans for how they are handling the investigation. “I thought the Republicans were fair, yes,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said after a long pause.
To stay in the news, scandals need new revelations to fuel the fire. That can be difficult when allegations are referred to prosecutors, who keep a tight lid on information until they are ready — if ever — to prosecute.
In this case, GSA Inspector General Brian Miller has already referred findings from his April 2 report on the Las Vegas conference to the Department of Justice. He has also pushed Republicans to limit disclosures on certain topics to avoid interfering with ongoing investigations by his office.
Meanwhile, dozens of GSA employees from across the country have been calling Republican Congressional offices to blow the whistle on waste and abuse, offering new avenues for investigation.
“To say this place is a circus would be an insult to the circus,” a second GOP aide close to the investigation said about the GSA.
New revelations could broaden the scope of the scandal beyond the single conference and the regional office that hosted it, potentially increasing the scope of the political damage.
For example, after the inspector general released his report on the Las Vegas conference, a GSA employee sent an email, obtained by Roll Call, predicting that other waste and abuse at the GSA is likely to be exposed.
“It is just a matter of time before Sales Force is exposed for the fraudulent spending it is. I think folks will go crazy reporting things to the IG’s now. Anyone that has a beef. The Baltimore, Md., travel gang better have a wake up call! :-)” the employee wrote.
There are also potentially explosive revelations in the testimony of Lisa Daniels, a GSA employee involved in planning the Las Vegas conference who was abruptly excused from a Tuesday House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing chaired by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.).
Daniels used her position awarding contracts to vendors to obtain discounts, gifts and other perks from those vendors, according to documents reviewed by Roll Call.
For instance, Daniels told a hotel representative at the M Resort Spa Casino where the Las Vegas conference was held, “I found a purse in the Vice Shop that I cannot live without!! But its more than I want to pay. ... Do you get a discount, and if so, will you help me? Its $98 — eek!”
Leah Abbs, the catering and conference services manager at the hotel, offered Daniels a $30 discount, and the two arranged a time to meet and fulfill the transaction.
Daniels told reporters Tuesday that she was on a 15-person committee that organized the conference but maintained she wasn’t responsible for the “over the top” expenses. “I do not. For that conference? No,” she said.
Cummings said he asked Denham to excuse Daniels from the hearing Tuesday because “I felt that she did not have a full understanding that the things that she was saying could be held against her. ... I felt like a doctor who sees somebody who is sick and does not at least raise a hand to help her.”
Denham agreed, and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) later backed the decision, telling Roll Call, “We don’t bring people in to cause them to destroy themselves.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.