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When power evaporates and you’re just a 61-year-old without a job
April 30, 2014 10:45 AM   Subscribe

"You resigned, though your office is the office that actually started this investigation. This would not have come to light unless your office would’ve started it. But as the leader at the top, you resigned. And people that were directly there making the decisions, signing onto the warrants, going through these fraudulent contracts, they’re still there."
Two years after Martha Johnson resigned from her position as the head of the General Services Administration following an investigation of wasteful spending under her leadership, what is her life like now? Lillian Cunningham writes for the Washington Post's On Leadership blog about life after a scandal.
posted by medusa (46 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
So I read this last week, and am left wondering: who in their right minds wants a political job ? The confirmation process is awful drag you through the mud, things you have no control over will get talking heads calling for your head, etc. I can't see why a rational person would be interested in such a "challenge" ..
posted by k5.user at 10:48 AM on April 30 [2 favorites]


Almost no one loses their job in scandal. You just keep your head down, enjoy the power, and then sell your access in the private sector. What's not to like?
posted by grobstein at 10:57 AM on April 30 [3 favorites]


We know our time could be cut short for reasons unrelated to our performance.

Taking that one sentence on its own, it's true for a lot of people, maybe most people.
posted by gimonca at 10:59 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]


I really liked that. Pity no one is willing to hire Johnson again.

Oddly enough, I know someone who was a regular GSA employee for some years. They left the agency after attending That Conference, because they were disgusted by the ridiculousness and didn't want to be tainted by the public perception.

GSA can do good work, but it amazes me that anyone thought that the bullshit that went down in Las Vegas was appropriate.
posted by suelac at 11:02 AM on April 30


So I read this last week, and am left wondering: who in their right minds wants a political job ? The confirmation process is awful drag you through the mud, things you have no control over will get talking heads calling for your head, etc.

There are hundreds (thousands? whatever, it's a lot) of jobs that we would consider "political appointee," and most of them are just like this -- you're an administrator of an agency that 90 percent of the American public doesn't know exists. Only a few of those have confirmation hearings that are remotely painful, even with today's Toxic Congress. And as grobstein points out, it is a fantastic thing to have on your resume. You will never look for work again if you are one of the hundreds (or thousands) of political appointees who serves your time (four years is long enough, even if the President gets re-elected) and gets out without something blowing up in your face that you didn't even really know anything about. The odds are at least 1,000-1 against being Martha Johnson, and the upside is pretty good.
posted by Etrigan at 11:13 AM on April 30 [2 favorites]


The goal in most appointee positions is to either work your way up the food chain (Johnson was already at the top so that didn't apply to her) or finish your stint and jump to (or back to) private industry. That assumes that you don't resign in disgrace or leave just before the IG gets involved. There are a lot of folks that are still mad at this whole situation (AFCEA, the conference industry) and that are about to seriously see their revenues contract. Who wants to be associated with that?
posted by playertobenamedlater at 11:22 AM on April 30


Now I feel really bad about eating in and watching Netflix most nights.
posted by miyabo at 11:36 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]


It is always fun to read a 1%er tale of woe at discovering that they are not a .01%er.
posted by srboisvert at 11:45 AM on April 30 [8 favorites]


It  is always fun to read a 1%er tale of woe at discovering that they are not a .01%er.

Last week on Metafilter, I learned that this war the basic plot to Eyes Wide Shut. This week, I learned that it happens in real life too. Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:50 AM on April 30 [7 favorites]


It is always fun to read a 1%er tale of woe at discovering that they are not a .01%er.

Definitely. Have you got a link to one of those stories?
posted by atrazine at 11:51 AM on April 30 [7 favorites]


All senior jobs in any enterprise - in this case government, but Microsoft or whatever - are political.

Anyway, unless I missed something, Johnson signed off on the conference that raised alarm bells. Or at least the buck stopped with her.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:59 AM on April 30


But workplace politics have made me realize what a waste of time cultivating a "career" is, unless you're in it for the indexed pension and comprehensive medical benefits.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:00 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]


There's lots of 61 year olds who've lost their jobs, and don't have government pensions or connections. Career bureaucrats whose entire careers have been in and around the Beltway know that if they accept political appointments, there's always the possibility that they'll be asked to fall on their swords.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:05 PM on April 30 [3 favorites]


> Or at least the buck stopped with her.

Jeffrey Neely was the one who should have been under the guillotine but he managed to escape unscathed and retired with a full pension. Check out his parting gift from the GSA.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 12:12 PM on April 30 [3 favorites]


It is always fun to read a 1%er tale of woe

1%er incomes start at around $394K, which from reading around is probably about twice what Johnson was paid as GSA Administrator.

When power evaporates and you’re just a 61-year-old without a job.

Somehow, I think she would be far less likely to be unemployed if she were a man, all other factors being equal. There are lobbying jobs. There are think tanks. There are cozy academic sinecures. But in a way never being a power player was her undoing: she was just a bureaucrat. Still, I'm surprised she's left so far out in the cold. Certainly, the right wing takes care of its own and even aggressively rehabilitates them.
posted by dhartung at 12:13 PM on April 30 [13 favorites]


Anyway, unless I missed something, Johnson signed off on the conference that raised alarm bells.

Nope. It was a regional conference for a sub-agency of the GSA. She neither attended nor approved it.

Or at least the buck stopped with her.

Well, yes, but not for any reason other than she let it. She was no more to blame for the conference than President Obama, but she chose to fall on her sword (and the various people above her let her), and she fired the person who headed the sub-agency in question.
posted by Etrigan at 12:13 PM on April 30 [4 favorites]


1%er incomes start at around $394K, which from reading around is probably about twice what Johnson was paid as GSA Administrator.

Oh snap! It turns out she is a 2%er. If she were a single filer. Which she isn't. So probably still a 1%er.

(394 is the household earning 99th percentile - not individual salary I think).

Either way I would be stoked to be her exact 'tragic' position at 61 as it would mean I probably won a lottery.
posted by srboisvert at 12:36 PM on April 30 [4 favorites]


I feel sorry for a woman who, two years after resigning from her job, is still reliving it every day. She seems a bit naive for a 61 year old middle/upper management career person. There always has to be a fall guy for the scandal and the farther up the totem pole you go, the more vulnerable you are. And I am rather amazed that, even as large as the GSA is, the top dog has no oversight over a $1 million internal conference?
posted by Kokopuff at 12:43 PM on April 30 [5 favorites]


Either way I would be stoked to be her exact 'tragic' position at 61 as it would mean I probably won a lottery.

CTRL-F "tragic": 0

CTRL-F "tragedy": 0

(that's in both the posted story and this discussion, before your comment)

No one is saying you can't be gleeful at the story of this human being whose career came to an abrupt end. But don't make anyone else out to be rending their clothes and bewailing this Poor Undeserving Wretch Who Suffered The Worst Fate Ever.
posted by Etrigan at 12:45 PM on April 30 [10 favorites]


It's more the ridiculousness of firing the head of a $9 billion Federal agency over the mishandling of $1 million in misappropriated funds that they were probably more responsible for discovering than encouraging.

I mean in terms of my personal finances, that's like someone giving me crap for buying 2 extra sixpacks of beer in a year that I didn't need. Or letting a subscription to an MMO run 1 month longer than it needed to.

I think at some point people just can't wrap their head around how big organizations are and how much money is moving about. Heck, even the article leads with a mention of a $7000 sushi bill for a 300 person conference with the implication that it's an extravagant excess. That's not that much more than $20 a plate - a generous meal allocation, but not exactly unreasonable either.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:55 PM on April 30 [14 favorites]


She got shafted. Neely, the guy who caused the mess, not only didn't get fired, he got retirement benefits and $100k a year. As head of the GSA, she made $8k less a year than Neely!

I think her gender has something to do with it, inasmuch as I think women are more likely to be "good soldiers", or "good girls" who play by the rules, and expect other people at the top to reward their loyalty. Well, clearly the Obama administration didn't. Shame on them.

If I had known her back then, I would have told her to fight back, and at least negotiate a package for herself. Look at all the miscreants from Wall Street or in Silicon Valley who have received their golden parachutes.
posted by mitschlag at 1:01 PM on April 30 [7 favorites]


Look at all the miscreants from Wall Street or in Silicon Valley who have received their golden parachutes.

I'm not really sure that's a positive model we should be working to emulate.
posted by enn at 1:06 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


>Anyway, unless I missed something, Johnson signed off on the conference that raised alarm bells.

Nope. It was a regional conference for a sub-agency of the GSA. She neither attended nor approved it.

?Or at least the buck stopped with her.

Well, yes, but not for any reason other than she let it. She was no more to blame for the conference than President Obama, but she chose to fall on her sword (and the various people above her let her), and she fired the person who headed the sub-agency in question.


I'm not suggesting for a second that she encouraged what happened, but I am saying that the fact she is out of a job and her subordinate is not seems to indicate she was in over her head, lacking the skills, knowledge and political capital/backing to do the job.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:07 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


I'm not suggesting for a second that she encouraged what happened, but I am saying that the fact she is out of a job and her subordinate is not seems to indicate she was in over her head, lacking the skills, knowledge and political capital/backing to do the job.

Or the fact that she was a political appointee and could be fired at the discretion of the President, while Neely was a career federal employee and had significantly more protections for his job (i.e., any) because that's how government jobs work.

What skills, knowledge or political capital/backing short of being a blood relative of the President would have saved her from falling on her sword over a conference she didn't attend, didn't sign off on and in fact ordered the IG review of when it came to her attention?
posted by Etrigan at 1:11 PM on April 30 [7 favorites]


What skills, knowledge or political capital/backing short of being a blood relative of the President would have saved her from falling on her sword over a conference she didn't attend, didn't sign off on and in fact ordered the IG review of when it came to her attention?

Really. She did everything she was supposed to do as soon as she found out about the conference, and was still thrown to the wolves because the administration needed someone to blame who was sufficiently important to make it meaningful to the press & the jackals in Congress.
posted by suelac at 1:13 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


All senior jobs in any enterprise - in this case government, but Microsoft or whatever - are political.

Yep. Although as someone who works in/adjacent to the actual machinery of politics, I feel like the sword-falling happens an awful lot in our business. We like to make examples of people. And, I mean, the whole REASON we have political appointees is so we have someone outside the career bureaucracy who serves at the pleasure of the President, both to push the administration's agenda and to take hits for the President when necessary. Who is actually, personally responsible for specific actions taken during a given scandal is generally irrelevant.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 1:14 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


I think at some point people just can't wrap their head around how big organizations are and how much money is moving about. Heck, even the article leads with a mention of a $7000 sushi bill for a 300 person conference with the implication that it's an extravagant excess.

That's just one of the many things they shouldn't have received during this conference. Neely had his wife attending with him and having her travel (and all associated expenses) paid by someone other than Neely. The problem here, and why Johnson was asked to resign, is that these weren't things that happened one time at one conference and could be brushed off as an isolated incident during the election. No, these were things that came out from one conference that someone decided to have the IG investigate. Can you imagine if Johnson didn't get sacrificed and more waste and abuse got exposed?
posted by playertobenamedlater at 1:22 PM on April 30 [3 favorites]


I'm having some issues with the story being told here. The article states:

“I remember thinking I’d never get GSA,” Johnson says. “I’ve never done anything political.”

That's slicing the truth real thin. She was on the Clinton-Gore transition team (and later the Obama transition team), worked in the Clinton White House Personnel Office, was an Associate Deputy Secretary of Commerce from 1993-1996, and was chief of staff at GSA (a non-career special appointment) from 1996-2001. What happened in 2001? The administration changed! It's not a coincidence that all her government jobs were under democratic presidents. By any reasonable definition of "political" she was a political appointee. She wasn't a career civil servant.
posted by Jahaza at 2:08 PM on April 30 [4 favorites]


I think she felt like Associate Deputy Secretary and CoS weren't "political" jobs. There's some justification to that -- the point of those positions is to do the work while the Secretary and the Administrator talk to Congress and give speeches and suchlike. So she always saw herself as a worker bee, albeit a high-ranking one, rather than a "politician."
posted by Etrigan at 2:15 PM on April 30


But don't make anyone else out to be rending their clothes and bewailing this Poor Undeserving Wretch Who Suffered The Worst Fate Ever.

Did you read the same article as me? THEY HAVE TO EAT AT HOME AND WATCH NETFLIX FOR GOD'S SAKE!
posted by srboisvert at 2:47 PM on April 30 [5 favorites]


Funny how putting something in all-caps and adding "FOR GOD'S SAKE" somehow makes it more "tragic."
posted by Etrigan at 2:49 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]


Since I'm sure that when I'm her age I'll be scrabbling in the ruins of a walmart fighting seagulls for scraps I have trouble feeling her plight.
posted by winna at 3:02 PM on April 30 [4 favorites]


Boo-fucking-hoo.

Also: It's hard to believe someone so naive ever got such a job in the first place.
posted by JeffL at 6:12 PM on April 30


And I am rather amazed that, even as large as the GSA is, the top dog has no oversight over a $1 million internal conference?

Having been involved in producing internal events with similar budgets, no, the top dog really doesn't have all that much oversight beyond signing off on the original budget (which may mean signing off on HR's total budget for the year, for example).

That Neely escaped this totally unscathed is grotesque.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:04 PM on April 30


Two weeks later, as Johnson sat before a congressional panel, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) pointed out a disconnect. “You resigned, though your office is the office that actually started this investigation. This would not have come to light unless your office would’ve started it. But as the leader at the top, you resigned,” he said. “And people that were directly there making the decisions, signing onto the warrants, going through these fraudulent contracts, they’re still there.”
Johnson breathed in and rubbed her brow above her glasses. “Yes,” she said. “I have resigned. And yes, I believe they are still there.”


She couldn't have fired the guys that actually made the bad decisions before she pointlessly fell on her own sword? Any pity I may have had for her evaporated after that sentence.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:06 PM on April 30


She was no more to blame for the conference than President Obama, but she chose to fall on her sword (and the various people above her let her), and she fired the person who headed the sub-agency in question.

Actually, she didn't - but she recommended that it be done:
"As of the hearing, [Neely] was on administrative leave but still employed by GSA. Johnson’s team had recommended he be fired, but he eventually retired under civil service laws with a pension and benefits".
I too, stand corrected in part. Although it seems ridiculous that this kind of conduct is not grounds for summary dismissal. Even if that's not possible, couldn't Neely be pursued for fraud or similar?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:15 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


Federal civil service has pretty strict rules for dismissing people, in large part to keep the career bureaucrats from becoming political pawns. Neely basically was able to run out the clock on the government.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:54 PM on April 30


Yeah, that's the grotesque part. While I understand the need for political protection for career civil servants, there should have been some way of removing him for gross dereliction of duty or something somehow.

Then again I guess any opening to firing career bureaucrats at that level is an opening for political gaming.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:05 PM on April 30


Pretty much. It's a classic case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't".
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:09 PM on April 30


I dunno I just think it sucks when the (apparently) quite competent have to jump under the bus while the incompetent drive merrily along.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:16 PM on April 30


She was no more to blame for the conference than President Obama, but she chose to fall on her sword (and the various people above her let her), and she fired the person who headed the sub-agency in question.

Actually, she didn't - but she recommended that it be done:
"As of the hearing, [Neely] was on administrative leave but still employed by GSA. Johnson’s team had recommended he be fired, but he eventually retired under civil service laws with a pension and benefits".


She fired Robert Peck, the head of the Public Buildings Service, and one of his advisers, both of whom were also appointees. Neely was a PBS regional commissioner (one of nine, four of which were at the conference in question), a career-civil-servant position with the various protections accorded to career civil servants. She suspended Neely (and the other three) before resigning, which was pretty much all she herself could do.
posted by Etrigan at 8:33 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


Ask me about this the next time we're at a meetup.
posted by NortonDC at 8:42 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


She fired Robert Peck, the head of the Public Buildings Service,

Thanks for that clarification, Etrigan.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:08 PM on April 30


There's lots of 61 year olds who've lost their jobs, and don't have government pensions or connections. Career bureaucrats whose entire careers have been in and around the Beltway know that if they accept political appointments, there's always the possibility that they'll be asked to fall on their swords.

This.

My mom is 64. She's a teacher for a private ESL school. She hasn't spent the last few years reflecting on the impact of "life after a scandal;" she's been counting her finances knowing that this is, logistically, the last job she'll ever be able to have.

If anything, I'm shitting on the WaPo for this fluff writing more than I am Johnson. I do sympathize with her; I just also know this is an experience thousands of people fear and face, only with a fraction of the salary, none of the potential fallback contacts and opportunities, and no mourning introspective in a national newspaper.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 5:36 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


> Even if that's not possible, couldn't Neely be pursued for fraud or similar?

Neely isn't the only one that's dirty and prosecuting him opens up a number of other people to also be grilled on fraud and abuse of government funds.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 6:05 AM on May 1


Neely isn't the only one that's dirty and prosecuting him opens up a number of other people to also be grilled on fraud and abuse of government funds.

Uh...good?

Yes, yes, I know I'm being naive.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:58 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


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