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Schram: Washington's amazing bureaucrats

Dueling scandals of the GSA and the Secret Service battle for the honor of enraging us more.

One minute you are sure those taunting, flaunting General Services Administration bureaucrats have won it all with their Vegas videos as they partied on our money, on our time. To the tune of more than $800,000.

But the next minute you are thinking, no, it's those cocksure Secret Service swingers who are the most outrageous. The 24/7 cable news and blogosphere are all a-Twitter with reports that 11 agents un-secretly inserted themselves into international scandal while setting up a presidential visit to Colombia. They reportedly went to a strip club and brought prostitutes to their rooms. But got their covers blown when one agent refused to pay a woman what she felt she'd earned. And soon the cops arrived.

Of course, you figure it is bizarre to even get news of obscure GSA bureaucrats and stealthy Secret Service elites in one week. And it is. But it takes me back to another era of investigative journalism -- one that put the GSA and Secret Service together in one room. And culminated in a quasi-investigative finale with the Secret Service honorably blowing up a GSA cover-up.

Here's what happened.

It was 1973 and I'd heard government funds were being spent on nonsecurity improvements at President Richard Nixon's homes and grounds, especially his new estate in San Clemente, Calif. I was Newsday's Washington bureau chief, and when I started asking questions, a White House spokesman said I could inspect the public records -- but only at GSA regional office in California. When I flew there, GSA officials said, oops, those records were still in Washington. Back in D.C., the GSA said the records would be made available to me by the GSA administrator himself, a political appointee named Arthur Sampson.

Expecting there'd be boxes to sort through, my Newsday colleague Pete Bowles came with me to Sampson's vast office. Sampson greeted us pleasantly but we saw no documents, just a half-dozen people waiting silently at a conference table. They were lawyers and press officers, plus the Secret Service's top communications official, Jack Warner.

Sampson asked me (with a straight face) how they all could help us. I said we didn't need their help, just their public records. Sampson then went into a long explanation that all the government expenditures involved presidential security -- top-secret equipment and such -- and were confidential.

Well, I said, let's just focus on landscaping. I asked for all government spending records for, say, planting begonias and all other landscaping at Nixon's home in San Clemente.

Sampson again said no, explaining (and he really said this): If people who wanted to harm the president knew the total spent on landscaping or specific floral varieties, they might figure out the type of security equipment being shielded.

Across the table, I saw the Secret Service man biting his lip, as though suppressing an urge to guffaw. So, facing Sampson, I said: "I've never heard a more asinine answer from a government official." But, I continued, fortunately Sampson and the GSA had nothing to do with presidential security. That was the Secret Service's job.

Then I asked the Secret Service's man: Did the Secret Service wish to officially associate itself with the answer I considered the most asinine I'd ever heard? Would the Secret Service state on the record there was any security reason for withholding the amount the government spent on landscaping at San Clemente? No, Warner replied, the Secret Service didn't believe the president's security would be compromised by making that information public.

Suddenly Sampson's face was redder than a stoplight. His assembled acolytes were adjusting their cufflinks or counting holes in ceiling tiles.

Sampson, trapped, had no choice but to give us those figures. That's how Americans learned their government spent a lot of public money on landscaping Nixon's personal property.

Many years later, I met Warner, then retired, on a Washington street. He told me that 1973 GSA interview was his favorite moment in a distinguished career of safeguarding legitimate Secret Service secrets.

I told him it was mine, too. Even as scandals swirl around us, truth has a way of making itself heard.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. Email


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