Board finds GSA wrongfully fired two senior officials in conference scandal

In the aftermath of revelations that the General Services Administration had spent $800,000 on a lavish Las Vegas conference, GSA and the White House were eager to show that further abuses wouldn’t be tolerated, management would be changed and people would be fired. But in the cases of two senior officials, the agency reached a bit too far, according to a federal appeals panel.

In a Christmas Eve ruling, the three-member Merit System Protection Board found that GSA failed to show any justification for firing Paul Prouty and James Weller — each of whom were regional commissioners in GSA’s Public Buildings Service at the time of the 2010 Western Regions Conference — affirming earlier decisions by two MSPB administrative law judges.

In its final decision, the board ordered GSA to reinstate both Prouty and Weller to the senior executive service positions it had fired them from in June 2012 and pay them back wages for the past 2 1/2 years, plus interest.

The ruling upheld the decisions MSPB’s judges made after exhaustive trial-like proceedings in 2013 and 2014. Those hearing officials determined neither Prouty nor Weller were in a position to know about the wasteful conference spending ahead of time or to stop it. GSA appealed those decisions to the full board, contending that the judges hadn’t adequately considered some of its justifications for firing the two officials, but the panel turned back every one of the agency’s arguments.

“There can be no doubt that the decisions that were made in the planning and carrying out of the 2010 WRC reflect a disregard of economy and a level of extravagance that have no place in government,” the board wrote in its decision. “However the agency, by abandoning its duty to produce evidence in support of its charges against the appellants … 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.”

Although Prouty and Weller’s regional staffs were involved as attendees to the Las Vegas conference, which included a $75,000 “team-building” exercise in which attendees assembled bicycles and $6,300 worth of commemorative coins, the GSA regions they oversaw — regions 8 and 7, respectively — had virtually no role in organizing the event or making contracting decisions, the board found.

Rather, planning for the 2010 version of the western regions’ get-together had been delegated almost entirely that year to region 9 and its then-commissioner, Jeff Neely. A federal grand jury indicted Neely in September on five counts of fraud in connection with the conference and alleged false statements during the subsequent investigation.

In its appeal, GSA argued that even though Prouty and Weller weren’t in charge of the event, their positions as members of the SES meant that they had a duty to “investigate and inquire” what peers such as Neely were up to, and to oversee any improprieties that might have been committed by lower-level employees in their chains of command.

But the board found that there was no reasonable expectation that Neely’s neighbors in the other western regions would scrutinize the number of internal planning meetings region 9 had organized in advance of the conference, let alone any of the details that were discussed. And MSPB ruled that yes, SES members can definitely be held responsible for what their subordinates do, but only if there’s a good reason to suspect that they knew or should have known that something was amiss in their chain of command — something GSA never proved, according to the board.

And while lower-level employees in Prouty and Weller’s regions might have been clued into how much the agency was preparing to spend for the Vegas conference — indeed, some of their subordinates attended “dry runs” of the event — there was no good reason for the federal managers at the top of the chain in those regions to know the details given the job descriptions the two officials occupied at the time.

But if that’s something GSA would like to change in the future, it’s perfectly free to do so, the board wrote.

“Agencies need not leave this to chance. They may include such managerial obligations in the position descriptions of supervisors, even SES supervisors, to make clear the extent of their responsibility over the actions of their subordinates. No change in statute is necessary to enhance the responsibilities of members of the SES or other managers.”

Prouty and Weller both have already been technically reinstated to their GSA jobs after the judges in their cases ruled their firings didn’t comply with civil service rules, but the agency placed them both on paid administrative leave while they waited for MSPB’s appeal decision. The agency used a legal exemption that lets the government stop them from going back to their normal jobs if doing so would be “unduly disruptive.”

If it wishes, GSA can push the case further through the legal process by pursuing another appeal of the Prouty and Weller cases though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Federal offices were closed on Friday and the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment about any plans for appeal. But Alan Lescht, an attorney for Weller, suggested that the MSPB decision is the end of the legal fight for his client.

“Mr. Weller is thrilled with the decision and looks forward to resuming his federal career,” Lescht said in an email to Federal News Radio.

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