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O.C. Executive Roger Johnson to Head GSA

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Roger W. Johnson, the high-tech executive who jolted Orange County Republicans when he broke ranks and endorsed Democratic candidate Bill Clinton in last year’s campaign, was named by the President on Monday to head the General Services Agency.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, Johnson will become the first Republican to hold a top job in the Clinton Administration. In view of Johnson’s background as a corporate executive, White House officials hope that he will bring a businesslike approach and bipartisanship to one of the government’s largest bureaucracies, which handles all federal non-military procurement and property management.

“Roger Johnson’s skills as a business leader and strong commitment to government change will ensure that economy and efficiency are standard rule at the new GSA,” Clinton said Monday in a statement announcing the appointment. “Partisan politics have no place at this crucial juncture of our history. We must all work together to get our government back on track.”

Johnson, 58, has been president and chief executive officer at Irvine-based Western Digital Corp. since 1982. The Fortune 500 company, which grew from 811 employees to about 7,600 during Johnson’s tenure, is now on the rebound following economic problems that threatened its survival.

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The difficulties were one thing that brought Johnson and Clinton together at the start of the presidential campaign in 1991. Johnson was critical of President George Bush’s handling of the economy, and when the Democratic candidate saw Johnson quoted in a newspaper article, he called to suggest that Johnson consider the Democratic ticket.

The result was a breakfast in Newport Beach hosted by Johnson and developer Kathryn Thompson in December, 1991. There Clinton pitched his economic plan to Orange County business leaders and raised national interest in whether Bush’s support was slipping in one of the nation’s Republican strongholds.

Johnson, who said he has backed Democrats for some offices but always voted Republican in the presidential race until last year, did not endorse Clinton until after the Republican National Convention in August.

He then helped campaign for the Democratic ticket nationwide as evidence that the candidate’s support crossed party lines and that Clinton was not an enemy of corporate America.

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Johnson said in an interview Monday that he was attracted to Clinton because of his call to “reinvent government.” He said he believes that Clinton selected him for the GSA assignment because he shares Clinton’s ideas about the need for major change in government.

Johnson discussed the job with Clinton during a recent trip to Washington. “We talked about reinventing government, and we don’t have to go too much further than that because both of us understand what we meant by that,” Johnson said. “I’m going to do everything I can . . . to take a new, fresh look at what government’s role is.”

Johnson was not specific about his plans for the agency, but said he would first “do a lot of listening” to GSA employees about how to change the agency.

“I hope the result will be a drastic reinvention,” he said. “But I hope most of that will come from the ideas of the people who are already there.”

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One of his tasks, Johnson said, will be to shrink the agency’s work force of about 20,000 employees and its annual budget of $10.4 billion. The agency is so big that much of it should be done without “too much pain,” he said.

Johnson’s supporters and associates said Monday that they wish him well in his job, but they acknowledged that it will be a major task.

“The whole administration is trying to focus on reinventing America, and there is probably no department in the government that needs more reinventing than the General Services Administration,” said Robert Nelson, an Orange County Republican political consultant who was the only GOP member of the Clinton transition team. “Roger Johnson immediately becomes both the largest property manager and largest purchasing agent in the world.”

Thompson, one of Bush’s top contributors in 1988, who co-hosted the Clinton breakfast, said of Johnson’s task of heading the sprawling GSA: “In one sense, it’s probably the most exhilarating experience to go through and, on the other hand, it’s probably the most exasperating.”

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The department Johnson would direct is not only a large agency, but one with a clouded legacy. Johnson would succeed Richard A. Austin, the Bush Administration’s appointee, who resigned in January with a tarnished reputation.

During Senate hearings in 1990, Austin acknowledged that he hired a longtime political aide to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R--Ill.) at Michel’s urging and kept the aide on the payroll at $30,000 a year until the day before the aide reported to prison on bank fraud charges.

Austin acknowledged his poor judgment in not discharging Paul C. Cation, Michel’s campaign chairman for nearly three decades, after Cation pleaded guilty in October, 1988, to charges of obtaining large loans from five banks by lying about his indebtedness.

Sen. John Glenn (D--Ohio), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the GSA, said this case and instances where other GSA executives were discharged because of personal financial problems showed the agency had become “a modern-day political dumping ground.”

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In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Justice Department investigation resulted in the conviction of more than 100 middle-level GSA employees and outside contractors for the payment or receipt of bribes.

The Justice Department’s final report said government contractors were paying off GSA building managers and others to overlook shoddy repairs and other poor workmanship in the maintenance of GSA-run office buildings.

The agency manages about 245 million square feet of office space in 6,600 buildings nationwide, of which 1,600 are owned by the government and the remainder are leased. GSA is also a major supply purchaser for the federal government and handles all government telecommunications services.

Created in 1949, GSA sets policy for other executive branch departments that procure their own supplies and services and also coordinates automated data processing throughout the government. It also is in charge of the disposal of most surplus government property.

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Politically, Johnson and others said, Johnson’s status as a registered Republican should not be a disadvantage. If there is an effect, some said, it might help in conveying a bipartisan approach to the office, particularly with members of Congress concerned about federal properties in their districts.

“Roger is a Republican, but he is very bipartisan in his approach,” said Jack Albertine, a friend of Johnson who heads an economic forecasting company in Washington.

Johnson said he thinks his appointment significant because it shows that Clinton’s approach to problem solving is unconventional.

“It’s just another example that says we are not going to waste anybody and we’re going to use every person,” Johnson said. “Past practice just wouldn’t let many alternative solutions be considered. This President does not let that happen.”

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PROFILE: Civic-minded Johnson isn’t typical CEO. A16

General Services Administration

The GSA oversees several offices, including the Office of Ethics and Civil Rights and the Office of Child Care and Development Programs. As GSA administrator, Roger W. Johnson would be the only Republican in the Clinton Administration to serve in a position that reports to the President.

Responsibility: Sets policy for executive branch agencies in purchasing supplies and services; manages federal property, equipment, telecommunications and data processing. Also manages government-wide building construction and leasing, travel and property disposal.

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Established: 1949.

Structure: Operates at three levels--central office, regional offices, field activities.

Budget: $10.4 billion annually.

Employees: 20,000.

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Offices: 34.

Sources: 1993 Federal Staff Directory, World Book Encyclopedia


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