KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Calling it "sloppy, messy, and ugly," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-M0.) Tuesday morning grilled General Services Administration officials over the hiring of a PR firm at the height of an NBC Action News investigation into sick and dead workers from the Bannister Federal Complex.
GSA officials defended the contract saying the agency did not have the expertese required to respond to mounting inquiries.
The agency's regional office "was not comfortable with its ability to respond to inquiries from the media," GSA Administrator Martha Johnson said.
Johnson testified health concerns among workers at the facility "impaired their ability to work."
The Senator chastised the agency during a Senate subcommittee hearing for not acknowleding mistakes and for improperly spending government money to handle publicity surrounding mounting inquiries into contaminants and health concerns at the facility.
GSA Public Building Service Commissioner Robert Peck denied violating any laws but acknowledged making mistakes.
Regional Commissioner Mary Ruwwe acknowledged during the hearing that Regional Administrator Jason Klumb had expressed concerns about the contract, but he was serving National Guard duty in Korea when it was approved.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO.) read an e-mail during the hearing indicating officials had hurried in signing an extension of the contract "before it is wake up time in Korea."
McCaskill grilled Ruwwe as to whether officials had disclosed to the PR firm that Klumb was out of the country and unable to block the contract.
"How would they know there was an issue with Jason Klumb in Korea," McCaskill asked.
"I don't know," Ruwwe responded."
McCaskill suggested that Ruwwe ignored Klumb's guidance and used a changing GSA chain of command to go over his head and approve a nearly $100,000 contract renewal.
McCaskill said the GSA had limited the power of the Regional Administrator under the Obama Administration.
"Clearly it was changed when no one was watching," McCaskill said. "If the Regional Administrators have no power why do we have them?"
"Clearly you knew he didn't want to do the contract and it didn't slow you down," McCaskill said to Ruwwe.
Klumb did not appear at the hearing.
"It was renewed even though the Regional Administrator said it was too expensive," McCaskill said.
"We did not do anything wrong," GSA Administrator Martha Johnson testified about the PR firm contract approved by a regional commissioner in the Kansas City office.
"Bad start," McCaskill said chastising Johnson and GSA officials during the hearing for not taking blame.
Moments later, Johnson acknowledged, when pressed by McCaskill, that the contract had not been properly written by the agency itself.
Instead, Johnson said she had recently learned that the PR firm itself had written the "scope of work" for the contract.
"It creates a situation where there are no controls," testified GSA Inspector General Brian Miller. "It allows the contractor to say what the contractor wants to do and it allows the contractor to name its own price."
She said until now, the agency assumed it had been executed by a government official which is normal protocal.
GSA officials blamed the lack of review on an EPA official who had passed on the scope of work without disclosing the PR firm itself had established what work needed to be done and what it should be paid.
"This was ugly," McCaskill said. "It was sloppy messy and ugly and bad. I haven't heard any acknowledgement from GSA that mistakes were made and it shouldn't have been done this way"
"We acknowledge that there is a lot of room for improvement," Ruwwe responded. "We value and have a very good relationship with the Inspector General and we value their feedback. and recommendations. We're taking our lessons learned."
"This is not the way you're supposed to contract," McCaskill told General Services Administration officials at the hearing.
The GSA initiated the contract with Kansas City based Jane Mobley Associates one day after NBC Action News reported FOIA documents indicated GSA officials knew about an employee death list for months while the agency was denying knowledge of contamination or health concerns.
McCaskill also blasted the agency for failing to release a critical document under a Freedom of Information Act request issued by both NBC Action News and the agency's Inspector General.
The missing document, which the GSA ultimately released after a reprimand from the Inspector General, showed 2005 health concerns over contamination at the complex.
The GSA's Inspector General Brian Miller testified that GSA was not holding itself accountable for wrong doing.
""The most notable misleading an inaccurate inforamtion was about documents being produced," Miller said.
"As near as I can tell, the failure to deliver that letter was not deliberate," GSA Commissioner Robert Peck said. "We've been near as I can tell, we have tried to