One of President Barack Obama’s political appointees delayed release of embarrassing information related to the General Services Administration’s (GSA) infamous champagne-soaked employee “team-building” conference in Las Vegas in 2012, according to a newly released report by the agency’s Inspector General.
The withheld information included emails about massive employee bonuses, and videos, including one where GSA employees pretended to be monkeys. The agency punished the employee who told people that the videos were wasteful was demoted to GSA’s daycare center after speaking out.
Officials then invoked a false legal justification to stonewall a public information request for the videos for more than a year.
The usual process in federal agencies is to have a team of trained career civil servants handling Freedom of Information Act responses. But at GSA, a single political appointee, Special Adviser Bianca Oden reviewed all FOIA requests from journalists after career employees completed their redactions.
And on several of the most politically sensitive requests, she appeared to let them sit on her desk for nearly a year without taking any actions. The politicized control of the FOIAs began soon after GSA was embarrassed by reports on its wildly lavish conference, for which a GSA manager later went to jail.
From then on, “GSA took steps to ensure that FOIA releases to the media were reviewed by GSA public affairs staff before release,” the IG said.
Cynthia Metzler, a career employee, was supposed to be in charge as Chief FOIA officer, but she deferred to Oden. “All FOIA responses went through Oden, a non-career employee … who reviewed proposed releases and redactions,” the IG said.
Then Oden sat on requests that could make the agency look bad. For example, GSA took 515 days to produce emails with certain matching terms like “bonus” manually for a TV news station, even though computers can do such work instantly.
Then-GSA head Dan Tangherlini, another Obama political appointee, told the communications office to “assess our exposure” with the request, and the GSA forwarded its proposed response to the White House for approval.
The records were produced by January 2013, but didn’t get political clearance for 11 months. The IG said “the amount of time taken was not ‘necessary to the proper processing’” of the request.
Oden told investigators the response “fell through the cracks,” but IG investigators said GSA should have had more people working on it. But GSA wanted the political appointee to be the sole approver.
The GSA took 242 days to release a response to another FOIA involving the GSA doing business with 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, which “far exceeded” the typical time. It only took two weeks to find and review the requested records in July 2013. But “Ms. Oden did not complete her review and forward the documents” until January 2014, the IG said.
Oden told investigators that “she must have forgotten” and “things were haphazard in the office.”
In a third request, GSA stonewalled on a request from Judicial Watch for more than a year for video by repeatedly deviating from guidance and law to find different ways to deny them. The videos showed Ben Kochanski, GSA’s Deputy Regional Commissioner for the Public Buildings Service, making a movie re-enacting scenes from the movie “Rocky” on Manhattan streets.
Related videos showed GSA officials rapping and playing with explosives a la Mission Impossible. They also included a video in which a “GSA employee tries conducting a seminar for a room full of screeching GSA employees/monkeys who continue drinking and partying until he joins them in a dance routine.”
A whistleblower who told GSA officials that the videos were frivolous and wasteful was demoted to the agency’s daycare center after speaking out.
In the report on political interference with FOIA requests, the IG said it was also inappropriate that Oden served not only as the person denying the FOIA, but also as the judge of her own conduct when Judicial Watch appealed.
Ultimately, political appointees and the White House “did not alter or expand what was redacted,” according to the IG, but the Las Vegas was old news by the time GSA released documents about it.
Ironically, the IG report was dated November 2015, but was only released Thursday.