From the GSA to the Secret Service: What do we expect from our public officials?

Apr 17, 2012

The GSA is under investigation for misusing public funds, and the Secret Service is in the midst of a prostitution scandal. One is about the betrayal of public trust, while the latter is about betrayal of public image. Which is worse, and are these two instances representative of the state of ethics held by our pubic officials?

Brad Hirschfield discussed this topic and more.

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Public Trust is a sacred commodity and when it gets betrayed, we are rightly hurt and angry.  But not all ethical failings constitute a violation of the Public Trust.


Do you think that the scandals at the GSA and the Secret Service are equally problematic?  Is one worse than the other?  To me it's a no brainer, and I am ready to explain why.  How about you?


Let's go!

Everyone at GSA who was involved in this fiasco went along. No one ahd the courage to say wait a minute what happens if this goes public? No not even saying this is wrong we are wasting the tax payers money but what is going to happen if we are tghe front page of the WP. As a DOD civilian employee I am very upset with the GSA folks because they make us all look bad. When I am doing my job I put National Security first and the American tax payer second. Many a time if have violated what my bosses want me to do because its not the most efficient way of doing things. They want me to eithe CYA or keep the lawyers on the other side of the house full employed. Dont think so. My coworkers usually do the same. Problem is at GSA leadership allowed a culture of waste and fraud to prevail. I am sure bonuses, QSI's and promotions were done to keep employees happy and quite. Rep Issa and COngress also need to take a look at this apsect too.

You raise many important issues, and all demand serious attention -- however briefly, as demanded by this forum -- all of them pointing to the questions all employees, especially those in the public sector, need to ask themselves.

1. Do I have the freedom to raise questions about efficiency and efficacy w/in my orrganization?  If not, why not?  And if so, am I raising those questions?

2.  Do I appreciate that silence is a form or acceptance and even of enabling bad behavior?

3.  Do I understand that the issue is not "with what can I get away?", but "where can I add value?"

4.  Do I reward others, and seek reward for myself, based on my response to #3 or based on some abstract benchmark which hides the real answer to that question?

5.  Specifically for public sector employees, do I realize that I work for neither my boss nor my department, but for the Public as a whole?


When organizations and their employees work with those guidlines, they can both achieve greatness and build trust with those they serve.  It really works.



I guess this goes to show that we have a misplaced sense of outrage in regards to these happenings. If this much energy was spent in 2001 and 2002, maybe all the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have happened and/or been severly curtailed, and Bush/Cheney would be facing war crimes trials right now!

Actually one has nothing to do with the other, though I applaud your capacity to see everything through the single lense you clearly have.


What IS valuable about your observation is that it reminds us that no one instance of abuse of the Public Trust takes the place of others.  It's not zero-sum, and they can all be truely abusive.  And while I do not share your view of who is a war criminal, by even the most conservative estimates, one would be foolish to miss the damage to the Public Trust that the way we entered those wars, if not the wars themselves, did real damage to the Public Trust in this nation.

So how did this GSA official manage to justify spending so much if, presumably, he was told to spend X amount and no more than that?

If you are referring to the LV meeting, the there was a budget, and the event was 600,000 dollars over it, or roughly 4 times the budgeted amount!  There are only two ways to blow past a budget limit:

1. re-appropriate the money from elsewhere, in which case they were really mis-appropriating, or 2, getting additonal public funds to cover the newly created shortfall, in which case they were taxing the public for their own personal gain. 


Either way it's quite serious and either one explains why people are so upset.  It simply smacks of contempt for the rest of us.

The sense of entitlement and abandon with which these government employees operate is simply appalling. It is about more than betrayal of public image - it is about a betrayal of public trust, fiduciary responsibility, and extremely importantly the very security of our officials. Seems to me that the old boy network is seriously called into question here and that new, stricter top level administrators are called for. Those found culpable should be assessed the monetary damages as well as any other appropriate disciplinary actions. How do we minimize this kind of abuse of system?

My point exactly!  While the Secret Service betrayed it's public image, unless we were to determine that they actually did more than violate their own code of personal conduct (itself no small thing), the GSA truly betrayed the Public Trust.


The damage is especially far-reaching given that we find ourselves at a moment of such low levels of trust in goverment.  For those who still "believe in government", the GSA story makes it ever-more difficult to make the case for what government can and must do.  For those already suspicious of too much government, the GSA story deepens that suspecion and makes it ever-more diffcult to find a reasonable middle ground. 


Minimizing such abuse lies in chnaging the cultures of these agencies, regardless of whether goverment shrinks or grows.  We need to nurture a public culture in which all employees always seek to add value and do so in ways which will create greater trust in the agency for which they work.  It's work that must be done from the inside-out, even though in the short-term, these people need to be policed from the outside-in.

I would not classify the Secret Service scandal really about a betrayal of public image. The Secret Service agents were opening themselves up to blackmail when they hired those prostitutes. If that isn't a betrayal of the trust the public has placed in them to protect the President, I'm not sure what is. There is also the fact that the official position from the State Department is that prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing. Simply because it is legal in Colombia does not mean that prostitution is ethically right.

We agree about prostitution, and not only because of DOS regulations.  It is NOT a victimless crime, no matter what some may argue, and however legal it may be in Columbia.  That said, your concern re the Secret Service is hypothetical and when weighed agains the real damage done by GSA, there is no comparison.


If we discover that the prostitutes had access to the President's travel plans, that the prostitutes were foreigh agents, or that the Secret Service guys were opening themselves to blackmail, then we can put them on the same page.  Until then, however wrong they both are, they remain fundamentally different.

Considering that the Obama Admin has been relatively scandal free, I wonder what the political background of the GSA/Secret Service CAREER employees is? Are they just out to make trouble? The GSA occurred in the West when Dems are in short supply? I think there should be a full investigation and people should get fired.

So you think that this was a Republican/Conservative lead conspiracy intended to embarass or harm the Obama administration?  Other than your suspicions, do you have any evidence of that?  Of course not!


Conspiracy theories are dangerous because they ALWAYS get used to prove what we already think we know, not to understand anything new.  They are the opposite of reasoned thought precisly because they are only interested in being right and will bend the facts to meet whatever needs the theorist may have,  In that sense, they are very much like the worst uses of faith by small-minded relgious idealogues.  That however, is for another time.

Why is this a scandal? From the article I read, prostitution is legal in Columbia so the agents did nothing illegal. I assume the agents were doing what they did when they were off duty. At what point does a morality clause in a person's employment carry over into their personal life? If I went to Amsterdam and got stoned (where it is legal), would my employeer be allowed to fire me if I failed a drug test when I returned to the US?

It depends, did you knowingly and willingly sign a contract which obligated you to observe certain personal standards, regardless of the local laws?  Secret Service agents do sign that kind of contract and these violated it. 


But as I have said, what they did does NOT rise to the level of scandal as what the folks at GSA did.  That is why I consider one to be a labor issue and about the betrayal of public image, while the other constitutes a fundamental betrayal of Public Trust -- which is the real issue here.

While I am disgusted by what the GSA did out in Vegas, the money spent was the equivalent of pocket change. And because of this, once again federal employees probably won't be getting a raise in 2013 or 2014. For every time squanderer, there are hundreds and thousands of government workers who work hard every day, do their job well, and hope their retirement will still be around after 30 years of service. True, the GSA may be low-hanging fruit (what do they do, anyway?), but how about going after massive waste at DOD, which gets weapons systems they neither want nor need forced upon them by members of Congress? How about investigating that for a change?

You know the old joke, right?  A million here, a million there -- pretty soon it's real money!  Except it's no joke.  The amount wasted by the GSA (whose job, in part is to help things like this to keep from happening, btw) is hardly pocket change to most Americans, and that's whose money it was/is.


You are certaonly correct that it is easier to waste millions when you are spending billions than it is to waste millions when you are spending tens of millions.  And that is why the primary issue is NOT simply punishing the GSA people who are guilty.  The real issue is to use this as a wake-up call to change the culture of government spending, whether one believes that government should be spending more, less, or the same as we currently are.

What are the punishments? While both are betrayals the Secret Service did not act criminally. Still, these kinds of stories just make our country look bad. It speaks to needing strong leadership, and thee kinds of stories are morally destructive.

The Secret Service guys are on leave and their security clearances have been revoked, pending a full investigation.  At GSA, there have been resignations and reassigments.


You are right about how it makes the country look and you are right about the need for better leadership -- which is always about setting personal example far more than it is about rules and enforcement.

I'm a ten year federal employee and in the three agencies I've worked for, employees aren't even provided drinking water. If we want water or coffee in the office, we pool our money to have it provided, or people donate their old coffee machines. Our holiday parties are always potluck. I think this is the norm and it frustrates me to no end that people think federal employees are all corrupt and blow taxpayer dollars. What happened at GSA is ridiculous but people need to realize it is rare and understand that most of us do not get the perks the private sector does or abuse the system for what little we do get.

I think that the truth lies, as it usually does, somewhere in the middle.  Most government employees are hard-working people who are not getting rich from their labors.  However, the waste and ineficiency that exists is legion.  Tragically, the waste and indulgence also typically benefit those who need the most -- people like you who have to buy thier own BOTTLED water (a fact you omitted) -- and goes to those at the top, who need it least -- those who are already the best paid and get the best benefits.

A lot better than this! But misuse of public funds is not the same thing as bad behavior. One is criminal, the other is stupid. Both should be penalized but the former is a criminal offense. Public officials have to know they cannot get away with this. We need to demand more from them.

And as I am sure youread the rest of my intro, you know that we agree about the two abuses being fundamentally different -- the Secret Service story being about betryal of image, and the GSA one about betrayal of trust.


Solving this however is not simply about what we demand from others.  It's about the ethical standards we set for ourselves and for our employees, and the opportunity we give them to earn rewards even when they "annoy" the system by holding themselves and those with whom they work to the highest standards.

In the comments under a Post article about the Colombia scandal, someone pointed out that the US Navy regularly schedules sailers for shore leave at Phuket, Thailand, a well-known sex tourism destination. This is obviously not a coincidence. Is it wrong of me to think this is necessary accommodation to recruiting, given the nature of naval service?

I don;t know if it's wrong of you, nor do I know that every visitor to Phuket is there for sex-tourism, especially as it is also a popular honeymoon location!


I also appreciate that reasonable people can disagree about the morality of prostitution.  But in the case of the Secret Service agents, it doesn't matter.  Their own personnel code prohibits what they did.  It 's as simple as that.

I've been a meeting planner for 17 years. I don't get to decide how much I'm spending on things. I participate in the budget process, it's approved by at least 5 other people at a higher pay grade then me, then I have to bring the meeting in under or at budget. Not sure what the GSA planner gets to decide, but a little bit I feel like with this scandal, just like with muffin gate it's the planner being unfairly blamed. Also, someone apparently called out the event based on a $5 per item hors d'ourves cost. When was the last time this person EVER planned an event in a hotel? These are STANDARD prices. In New York you can easily pay $120 for a gallon of drip coffee that equals 16 servings.....yes, that is $6.85 per cup, and you haven't even added what we refer to as the "plus plus" - tax and service (which used to be 18% but I've been seeing 23% lately. Sometimes I tell people it would be cheaper for me to stand in the foyer and hand out $5 bills. I'd like to see the cost of things addressed instead of all this "outrage about spending".

The planner is hardly the sacrifical cow here.  the dead of the agency resigned.  And at almost 3,000 dollars a person for a few days in Las Vegas -- a city so hungry for tourists that they are giving away hotel rooms -- this was nuts, by any standard.

Brad, I had thought that the extracurricular activities of married Secret Service agents were the worst kept secret in Washington, but the level of surprise after Colombia suggests maybe not. The culture of adultery at the Secret Service is problematic - talk to some agents, and they will tell you that what happened in Colombia happens virtually every trip that the Service takes. There was a running joke that on Bush 43's last trip to Texas as President, the agents all had to break up with their Crawford girlfriends.

I guess that some of us -- lots of us, actually -- have been in the dark on this.  I certainly had never heard the phrase, "when the wheels go up, the rings come off", until a few days ago.


Frankly, I am no prude, but there is a personnel code, it's there for many good reasons, and these guys violated it.  I certainly hope that now that it's in the open, this issue is examined and people -- both inside and outside the agency -- come to appreciate the reasons why this code is as it is.  It's not about sexual prudishness, it's about keeping agents "above the fray", at least as much as possible, so that they can not be taken advantage of as a result of their behavior.

I really don't think the Secret Service scandal is a betrayal of public image. By hiring prostitutes, the agents opened themselves up to blackmail and thereby risked the safety of the people they guard. If that isn't a betrayal of public trust, I would like to know what you consider one.

If that happened, I would agree, but there is no evidence of that.  Simple as that.  If new facts emerge which are in line with your concerns, then we will move this one over to the "betrayal of public trust" column.  For now, not so much.


I am not just being picky here.  We need to distinguish between the two so that we can address each appropriately and use these events to begin to rebuild public trust, especially in our government agencies.  that breakdown is not only unpleasant, it gets dangerously exploited in politics, by both sides, all the time. 

I'm a Federal employee and am appalled at the behavior of both incidents. This could never happen at my agency, or the agency where I worked before. There are so many rules and regulations about contracting, that I can't imagine how this conference was ever able to fly. Please let the American public know that this is NOT the norm. We civil servents take great pains to make sure we use the taxpayers money wisely. Thank you.

Thanks for that.  Before wrapping up, I thought that this should be our last word. 


Our job as citizens is to balance appropriat outrage about what occured with the knowledge that it is NOT the norm.

As always, there are more comments and questions than my hands can, well, handle.  Thanks for all of them and stay tuned for next weeks discussion of the ethical issues at the center of the biggest stories in the news.


Don't forget to find me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @Brad Hirschfield.




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Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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