Crossposted on California Political Review

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” – P.J. O’Rourke

Quite a bit has been written about Jeff Neely, the federal government bureaucrat at the center of the GSA taxpayer boondoggle in 2010.  Neely serves the Pacific Rim at the General Services Administration and his wife allegedly helped him plan an $823,000 GSA party in 2010 that featured a hot tub, lavish feasts and cocktails, jesters, a clown, a mind reader, and a comedian.  It took place in Henderson, Nevada on the American taxpayer’s dime.

Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with Tom Lorentzen, who served as special assistant in Region IX at the General Services Administration at the time I served as Representative for the U.S. Department of Labor.  I’ve known Lorentzen since 1984 when we both served on the Reagan-Bush campaign.  A man of honor, integrity, and always a gentleman, Lorentzen observed poor behavior at the GSA during the time he served the Pacific Region about a decade ago.

Lorentzen dealt with Jeff Neely and others at the department and offered to share his insights which point to a long-term cultural arrogance of government officials at the agency.

“Neely saw political appointees come and go with each Presidential Administration.  He became confident in his own ability to outsmart them.  He mastered the art of politics more than the political appointees did,” said Lorentzen.

Lorentzen clashed with Neely regarding handicapped access and parking at a Nevada federal building.  Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the federal government has exemptions regarding offering parking at certain federal buildings.  At the time, Nevada U.S. Senator John Ensign had asked Lorentzen to look into this issue as had a District Representative for U.S. Senator Harry Reid.  He was informed by Neely that such accommodations were not in his jurisdiction.

“It’s a culture of arrogance that made him state that he was not mandated by law and as such, I should butt out.  His perspective was doubly bothersome because he very crudely told me it was none of my business,” said Lorentzen.  “My point of view was that there were older people needing to come to the building to discuss their Social Security, Medicare, and other issues.  Some required special parking access.  We should figure out a way to accommodate them.”

Lorentzen knows his way around government and has seen the culture of GSA as an ongoing problem.  Like surgeons with talent, strong minds and large egos, government officials at the GSA have power.  They control all government supplies, goods, buildings, and maintenance.  No matter who is in power, there has always been a culture of arrogance that feeds off itself.

“Absolute power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” stated Lorentzen.

Still, Lorentzen saw exceptional circumstances coupled with the culture of the GSA as contributing factors to such lavish overspending and unacceptable behavior.  “What you have here is a large government manager’s ego coupled with the culture of the GSA”, said Lorentzen.

“Ego X Money and Power = Intoxication.  It took all three to tango – it was the perfect storm,” said Lorentzen.

Still, the scenario seems unimaginable to those of us who have served the people and understand that the role of government servants is to be above the fray – knowing the difference between right and wrong.  I pressed Lorentzen on whether there was some catastrophic event – some power play – that may have occurred which encouraged such behavior on a government servant.

It turns out that around the same time, stimulus dollars totaling nearly $14 billion had been bestowed on the GSA in 2010.  These funds had to be spent expeditiously for the construction and renovation of federal buildings, including $4.5 billion to improve the energy efficiency of GSA properties.

It was around this timeframe that the famous Henderson junket took place.  Was this event a celebration of the departmental spending of the stimulus money?  Were stimulus dollars used to pay for the lavish feast and entertain government employees?  Right or wrong, it is fair to ask the question whether stimulus funds were part of the jagged edged puzzle that led to such egregious misuse of taxpayer dollars.

Just last week, the GSA Chief of Staff told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he knew of the Inspector General’s investigation into the GSA-Henderson affair and informed a White House attorney a year ago, in May 2011.  You can view the official testimony here.

Being responsible and responsive to taxpayers is the job of a government official.  Whether elected or appointed to their government post, individuals must heed a public servant’s “Golden Rule” – you are beholden to and serve the people. They pay your salary. They expect you to conduct yourself with integrity and use their money wisely.

I’ll never forget one visit to Washington, D.C. where a hundred or so regional appointees of domestic policy agencies met with President Bush on the side steps of the White House.  He addressed the group who was there for a training conference. The President stated: “Never forget who you work for.”  As the appointees applauded, President Bush said — “and it’s not me — it’s the American people.  They’re our boss.  Never forget that.”

Our government needs to get back to this, become accountable once again, and quit wasting our money.