Congressional hearings rank high on my list of occasions worth avoiding, right up there with Civil War reenactments and junior-high dances. Just thinking about a roomful of grandstanding legislators gives me the creeps. So I felt for Robert Peck, Hon. AIA, when he was called before a House committee last month to testify about a case of financial malfeasance at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).
One of the 2012 recipients of the AIA’s Thomas Jefferson Award, recognizing his two separate stints as commissioner of the GSA’s Public Buildings Service, Peck has been summarily dismissed because of the controversy. This is alarming news. During the Clinton administration, Peck created the Design Excellence Program, which has led to a vastly improved standard of design for government buildings. Under President Obama, he has implemented higher sustainability and performance standards. Public architecture has lost its champion.
You’ve probably heard about how the acting commissioner of the agency’s Pacific Rim region, Jeffrey Neely, spent $823,000 on a conference in Las Vegas for 300 staff, and about how it took nine scouting trips to find just the right venue. You’ve seen the cringe-inducing snapshots of Neely by the pool and in the hot tub, and you’ve read the mind-blowing invitation he emailed to a friend: “We’ll get you guys a room near us, and we’ll pick up the room tab. … I know, I’m bad. But as Deb and I say often, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain’t going to last forever.”
That friend isn’t a government worker. And the generous “we” to whom Neely refers is GSA, and ultimately the taxpayer. “Deb” is Neely’s wife, Deborah, who doesn’t work for the government either, but was a major beneficiary of the nation’s involuntary largesse, including a 17-day birthday trip to Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan. Neely pleaded the Fifth before the congressional committee and is on paid administrative leave pending further investigation and possible criminal charges.
Neely looks like the real culprit. So why did Peck lose his job while Neely remains on the GSA payroll? The short answer is that Peck was a political appointee, making him much easier to fire than Neely, who, as a career civil servant, is sheltered by layers of due process. But there are reasons, and then there are reasons.
The national press is reporting two ostensible misdeeds on Peck’s part: He awarded Neely a $9,000 bonus, despite apparently knowing about an ongoing internal investigation into the Vegas conference. Also, Peck was in attendance at the conference and hosted an impromptu party in his suite. He says he planned to pay for the party himself and didn’t know that an additional $2,000 catering order that night was charged to the government instead.
Peck served as managing director with Jones Lang LaSalle between his two GSA stints. He clearly has good friends in the world of commercial real estate, and they have not been shy about voicing their support. According to The Washington Post, Richard Bradley, the executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, believes that Peck shouldn’t be expected to know details of every single conference his agency held. As commissioner, the Post explained, “he was responsible for an annual budget of $8.6 billion, a workforce of 6,700, and a portfolio of more than 9,600 properties.” In the same article, Michael Glosserman, managing partner of real estate firm JBG Companies, said, “It felt to me that examples needed to be made; it was embarrassing to the government, and heads needed to roll at a very high level, and Bob was a victim.”
I don’t know Peck well. We’ve only met once or twice in passing. However, I know friends and close colleagues of Peck’s, and they’ve always spoken highly of him. The tales of GSA conference excess simply don’t jibe with Peck’s reputation, and they run counter to my own experiences with the agency itself—particularly the Design Excellence Program, which I have covered many times as a journalist and curator, and where I serve as a peer professional.
So far, I’ve participated in only one peer review, of a proposed entrance pavilion for the State Department headquarters in downtown D.C. During the lunch break, all the participants trooped over to the employee cafeteria, where we each grabbed a tray, stood in line, and paid for our own food. There were no scouting trips. Even when I dine socially with friends from Design Excellence, they always insist on going Dutch.
Ultimately, the GSA’s internal investigation process worked effectively in rooting out a crime. Bravo. Alas, further investigation and some degree of reform are all but inevitable now, and given the enormity of the agency, no one should be surprised if the witch hunt turns up a few more cases. It is hard not to suspect, cynically, that the reaction to Neelygate is a case of politically convenient, manufactured outrage over an offense that registers as penny-ante compared to, say, the ongoing, federally underwritten abuses of Wall Street and the oil and gas industry.
Bradford McKee, my savvy counterpart at Landscape Architecture, made the point beautifully in a recent post: “If I were looking for really serious federal government waste and abuse of tax money, that is, with a few more zeros behind it, GSA would hardly be the first place I’d go looking.” Indeed, it’s time to let the GSA get back to work. Peck has left the building, but his vision for the betterment of federal architecture must live on.