Inside Roth’s Dilbertville GSA: Worse than you thought

If you like Dilbert, you’ll love the GSA inspector general report on how former administrator Denise Turner Roth retaliated against a subordinate who went to the IG. Not just any underling, but Tom Sharpe, a career senior executive who’d been tapped earlier as Commissioner of the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

Safe to say, they won’t be grilling hot dogs together and sharing a beer this 4th of July.

They’re both gone now, but the odor of a classic internecine turf fight lingers. For 61 pages, the IG details a simmering dispute between Sharpe and Roth, with deputy Administrator Adam Neufeld in Roth’s corner and Deputy FAS Commissioner Kevin Youel Page in Sharpe’s. The argument centered on whether Roth’s establishment of a third acquisition service would be a statutorily correct use of the standing fund used to pay for the two existing acquisition services. And by extension, whether Sharpe would end up responsible for a fund he didn’t have total say over.

It got so bad, Sharpe went to the IG. That made him a whistleblower. To Roth, that made him an under-performing recalcitrant. She tried to have him transferred.

The tale is exquisitely colored with details of memos, e-mails, meetings, who-said-what-whens, statute paragraphs, reports — all in the stuffy, passively-voiced, soft-edged talk of bureaucracy. Roth (p. 23) didn’t tell Sharpe to shut up and get in line. She told him he needed to become a constructive partner. It got downright nonsensical. Over the question of whether the new service could use what Sharpe though should be his money to approve or deny, the general counsel split the baby. Sharpe would have the “discretion” to approve or disapprove projects. But Neufeld had “final determinative authority either way.”

In one case, Sharp was mulling over a $2.2 million proposal. While he did, Neufeld signed off on it.

Phaedra Chrousos, the commissioner of the new service to which Sharpe objected, at one point e-mailed Neufeld: “Is she really not going to fire (Sharpe)?”

Knives — inserted and twisted.

Can you imagine working in an atmosphere like that?

Jason Miller has a detailed account of the background leading to the Trump administration moving the Technology Transformation Service back under FAS. Behind all the legalese, though, is a clash of cultures. Sharpe comes across as process-oriented, sensitive to the picky points of law and administrative detail, cautious. Roth, a political appointee, comes across as brash and slightly disdainful of too much process. In the end they stopped listening to one another.  And Roth crossed a line. Even if the IG’s finding of retaliation is moot, there’s a lesson there.

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