By Mike Lillis - 04/17/12 01:13 AM EDT
The General Services Administration (GSA) official at the center of a scandal over lavish government spending declined to answer questions at a congressional hearing on Monday, invoking the Fifth Amendment.
“Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutionally privilege,” Jeff Neely said repeatedly in response to a string of questions from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
A scathing GSA Inspector General report, released earlier this month, detailed the almost $823,000 taxpayer-funded tab for the conference, including $146,527 for catered food, $6,325 for commemorative coins and $75,000 for a cooperation-building exercise to construct two dozen bicycles.
The public report led to the immediate firing of two top GSA officials, prompted the quick resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, and brought a wave of loud condemnation from lawmakers in both parties.
With Capitol Hill quiet for the last two weeks of spring recess, the GSA story caught fire in the media, creating a circus-like atmosphere Monday in the Rayburn hearing room on Capitol Hill, where a line of hopeful observers snaked down an otherwise quiet hallway and the press table spilled with reporters even 30 minutes before the hearing began.
When Johnson and Neely arrived, dozens of cameras greeted them at the witness table; when the hearing room door was opened, the clamor from the hallway rushed in.
Behind Issa, the Republicans on the panel took turns hammering both the GSA and the White House over the scandal. They say the episode reveals a culture of overspending, not only in the GSA, but in the Obama administration more broadly.
“Wasteful spending is a problem that transcends multiple administrations and multiple Congresses but it’s incumbent on the present administration and the current Congress to mandate a culture that prevents this type of waste and mismanagement, no matter what happened before them,” Issa said.
In contrast to many Oversight Committee hearings – which often feature Republicans blasting the Obama administration and Democrats defending it – Monday's gathering found Democrats eager to pile on the criticism as well.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), senior Democrat on the panel, said Neely's behavior “disregarded the most basic tenets of government service” and “tarnishes the reputation of hard-working government workers” nationwide.
“I want to know how we can recoup these funds, including from Mr. Neely and other GSA employees personally,” Cummings said.
Appearing beside Neely, other GSA officials – including Johnson and David Foley, deputy commissioner of the Public Buildings Service – offered no attempt to defend the spending on the Vegas junket, instead apologizing repeatedly for the scandal that occurred under their watch.
“I personally apologize to the American people for the entire situation. As the head of the agency, I am responsible,” Johnson said. “I'm just as appalled as you are.”
Brian Miller, the GSA Inspector General, applauded the internal oversight system that allowed his office to issue its damning report without political interference. But he warned that more needs to be done to ensure that taxpayer dollars aren't similarly wasted in the future.
“While a private business may use its profits to reward employees in a lavish fashion, a government agency may not,” Miller said in his prepared testimony, adding that related investigations are ongoing.
“This report should not obscure the fact that thousands of GSA employees work hard and do a great job for the American taxpayers,” Miller added.
Many lawmakers focused their ire on reports that Neely was given a $9,000 bonus even as top GSA officials knew he was under the Inspector General’s microscope for dubious spending.
Johnson defended her decision to grant the bonus, arguing that the probe wasn't complete at the time.
“One does not interfere with an investigation,” Johnson said.
That response did little to appease several Republicans. Some of the most heated moments came during questioning from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who wondered how Neely could receive a bonus amid a federal pay freeze and why Neely remains a paid GSA employee.
“What does it take to actually get fired from the GSA?” Chaffetz asked.
Since the initial Las Vegas report surfaced, several other headline-grabbing episodes have hit the GSA, including reports that five GSA employees spent a week in Hawaii in 2011 for an hour-long groundbreaking ceremony. The IG also unveiled details of the GSA's “Hats Off” program, which awarded employees with hundreds of thousands of dollars in iPods and gift cards.
Dan Tangherlini, GSA’s acting administrator, told the Oversight panel Monday that he's already taken a number of steps to rein in the GSA’s alleged culture of overspending. Under his watch, he said, the GSA has suspended the “Hats Off” program, canceled 35 already planned conferences and ended “most travel” at the agency through the end of the fiscal year.
He’ll have plenty of time to retell the story, as Monday's hearing is just the start of Congress’s probe into dubious GSA spending.
On Tuesday, the Transportation Committee’s subpanel on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management – headed by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) – will take another shot at the embattled agency. And Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Financial Services Subpanel, have both scheduled hearings on the topic Wednesday.
Like Issa, Denham has requested testimony from Johnson, Neely and other GSA officials directly involved in the Vegas junket. The Senate Democrats, by contrast, have invited only Miller and Tangherlini.