James Oberstar, a former U.S. lawmaker, says one person came to mind when a U.S. General Services Administration spending scandal broke last month.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’ll betcha Susan Brita blew the whistle on them,’” Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who served in the House of Representatives for 36 years, said in an interview.
When his wife asked why he believed that, “I laughed and said, ‘If you knew Susan like I knew Susan,’” recalled Oberstar, who worked with Brita as chairman and ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she was a subcommittee staff director.
Oberstar was right. It was Brita, a 68-year-old Capitol Hill veteran and deputy GSA administrator, who called attention to the agency’s $823,000 in spending at a Las Vegas conference. She triggered what may prove to be one of the biggest shake-ups in the history of the 12,000-employee agency.
The fallout so far includes the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and her replacement by an acting head who has promised a top-to-bottom review of the GSA’s structure and reporting procedures.
Two appointed GSA managers have been fired, 10 GSA career employees have been placed on administrative leave, and the inspector general has referred the matter to the Justice Department. Congress has held four hearings on the GSA since the agency’s inspector general made public a report prompted by Brita’s concerns. More are planned.
‘To Your Face’
Like Oberstar, people who know Brita say they’re not surprised at her role. Whether the issue is parking in her Alexandria, Virginia, neighborhood or bureaucratic waste, she has shown herself to be a formidable advocate -- or adversary -- when she decides what is permissible behavior and what isn’t, they say.
Brita is “the kind of person who will tell you to your face what really needs to be done,” Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.’s delegate to Congress and a member of the House transportation committee, said in an interview.
Brita didn’t respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment. Adam Elkington, a GSA spokesman who said he was speaking on her behalf, said she and other GSA employees weren’t available for interviews.
President Barack Obama appointed Brita to her current position in February 2010. She earned $177,000 in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, according to FedsDataCenter.com, a website that tracks federal salaries.
She had served as GSA chief of staff from 1985 to 1988 before spending 18 years as staff director of a House transportation subcommittee that oversees government operations, including those of the GSA. Sometimes called the government’s landlord, the GSA manages 9,600 federally owned or leased buildings, and buys goods and services for U.S. agencies.
After her return to the agency, Brita began hearing from employees about lavish spending by the GSA’s western region for an October 2010 conference at the M Resort Spa Casino in Henderson, Nevada, near Las Vegas. In November, she asked the agency’s inspector general to investigate.
She found a letter of reprimand to western region Commissioner Jeff Neely, based on an interim report by the inspector general, to be insufficient. It was “not even a slap on the wrist,” she wrote last July to Robert Peck, the letter’s author. Peck, who was head of the agency’s Public Buildings Service, has been fired.
Hot Tub Wine
The inspector general’s final report, made public on April 2, revealed that the Las Vegas junket had featured a mind reader, a clown and a $75,000 bicycle-building exercise. The conference also included $8,130 to print “yearbooks” for participants, $6,325 for commemorative coins and breakfasts at $44 per person.
News coverage of the report included photographs of Neely, who organized the conference, in a hot tub in Las Vegas with two glasses of red wine at hand. Neely, who is among those placed on administrative leave, has declined to testify at the congressional hearings, citing his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
Brita was “the skunk at the picnic” at the GSA, Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House transportation committee, said in an interview. “We would not know what had been going on there if it weren’t for Susan.”
Mica’s committee has invited Brita to testify at a hearing, possibly later this month, to review “solutions to reform, reorganize or retire” the GSA.
The Las Vegas bash wasn’t Brita’s first run-in with the GSA. U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, recalled working with her to get access for disabled people added to a courthouse being built in Salem, Oregon.
The GSA and a judge involved in the building’s design, “were incredibly resistant to making any changes,” saying they would cost too much and hurt the appearance, DeFazio said. When the building was completed in 2006, it had access for the disabled.
“Susan was the one who brokered a solution,” DeFazio said.
Former Representative Oberstar says Brita took a similar stand when he was on the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and she worked for the board as part of her committee duties.
To raise money, some board members proposed publicizing large donors by inscribing their names in stone near the outside front of the building, he said.
Taking On CBO
“She erupted,” Oberstar said. “She said, ‘This is a memorial to a fallen president. This is a national memorial. This is not Kmart.’ It was such a deep-seated visceral reaction.”
The idea was shelved after Oberstar repeated her argument almost verbatim at a board meeting, he said.
Delegate Norton said she worked with Brita when trying to get a bipartisan bill passed to renovate the historic Old Post Office building in Washington. Word came to Norton that the Congressional Budget Office was going to “score” the bill, or estimate how much it would cost, an action that might have delayed or killed the proposed legislation.
“We let Susan loose on the scorers,” Norton said. “When she got through with them, for the first time since I have been in Congress, the CBO reversed its decision” and didn’t score the proposal.
She “saved the project,” Norton said.
Those who challenge Brita need to have a “very strong spine,” said Rick Barnett, an acquaintance of more than two decades who sparred with her as the Republican counterpart on the transportation subcommittee.
“She can be mighty tough and has a long memory of political battles,” Barnett, now executive managing director at Studley Inc., a New York-based real estate services company, said in an interview.
Brita grew up as Susan Finn, the second of five children in a middle-class family from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston. Her father worked in sales for W.R. Grace & Co., the specialty chemicals company, and her mother was a homemaker. She graduated in 1965 from Cardinal Cushing College, the now-closed Catholic women’s school in Brookline, Massachusetts.
“Our parents told us the difference between right and wrong, and that’s how we were raised,” said Brita’s brother, Paul Finn, a Boston attorney who helped settle a sexual abuse case against the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003 for $85 million, the largest such settlement at the time. “She doesn’t tolerate fools,” Finn said of his sister.
Brita was a stay-at-home mother until the youngest of her three children attended school. She then enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, earning a master’s degree with honors in public administration, according to the GSA website.
Brita, who lives in a block of $900,000 townhouses in the Old Town area of Alexandria, is described by neighbors as a low-profile resident except when she works to get out the Democratic vote or when local issues arouse her.
Mariapia Ogden, who says she has lived next to Brita for 25 years and has had few conversations with her, recalled Brita’s involvement in a parking dispute.
It arose when owners of new townhouses across the street sought street parking permits, even though their homes had garages. The homes on Brita’s side of the street lack garages and residents there already were paying for the limited number of parking spaces on the street.
“Why should they get street parking when we need it?” Ogden said. “Susan became involved and they didn’t get the permits.”