Federal Oversight

Board upholds reinstatement of GSA execs

The Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) upheld the reinstatement of two regional Public Buildings Service (PBS) commissioners fired in the wake of the extravagant 2010 Western Regions Conference, finding the General Services Administration did not provide adequate justification for letting them go.

Along with those directly involved in the planning process, former Region 8 Commissioner Paul Prouty and Region 7 Commissioner James Weller were fired after the acting PBS commissioner determined that they should have realized the conference costs were "questionable and excessive" and taken action.

An investigation by the Inspector General determined the $823,000 spent on the Las Vegas conference was "excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible," and GSA's "approach to the conference indicates that minimizing expenses was not a goal."

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The IG noted the unnecessarily high number of planning meetings, the cost of food and beverages for the event, a team building exercise that included assembling bicycles (which were later donated, against regulations) and conference mementos, including formal vests and commemorative coins in velvet boxes.

Then-GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and Jeff Neely, former commissioner of Public Building Services Region 9, which organized the event, resigned in the aftermath of the IG report, with the latter later brought up on criminal charges.

Prouty and Weller were fired in June 2012, with the GSA asserting that the two should have known the spending was excessive and reported it.

The firings were later overturned, which GSA appealed.

The MSPB maintained the decision to reinstate Prouty and Weller, citing precedent that "a supervisor cannot be held responsible for the improprieties of subordinate employees unless he actually directed or had knowledge of and acquiesced in the misconduct."

While employees of both Prouty and Weller sat in on planning meetings for the conference, the board found that neither was accountable for the spending, nor were they responsible for speaking up.

"We conclude that the agency's petitions for review provide no basis to disturb the administrative judges' well-supported findings and ultimate conclusion that the agency failed to establish its charges," the three-member MSPB board wrote.

The board continued:

There can be no doubt that the decisions that were made in the planning and carrying out of the 2010 [Western Regional Conference] reflect a disregard of economy and a level of extravagance that have no place in government. However the agency, by abandoning its duty to produce evidence in support of its charges… simply did not prove that these particular appellants knew or had reason to know of these ill-advised planning and purchasing decisions until after the conference had concluded, at which time no action on their part would have been effective.

GSA has 20 days from the decision (Dec. 24) to reinstate Prouty and Weller. The rehiring will be effective June 2012 and the agency has 60 days to reimburse them for back pay, interest and benefits.

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