Tuesday, April 17, 2012

House Committee GSA Hearing Sparks Fireworks Over Lack Of Competitive Bidding

In the first of a series of four Congressional hearings scheduled this week to investigate the GSA’s Western Region 9 Las Vegas conference scandal, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee entertained a fireworks display over failure of the agency to vet conference costs through competitive bidding, as the laws governing GSA require. Committee members of both parties, outraged at the $823,000.00 cost of the four day event, attended by 300 agency employees, at a daily expense of more than $685.00 each, lost no time castigating current and former GSA officials for the excesses.

The fuse was ignited by GSA staffer Jeffrey Neely’s answers to Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa’s opening inquiries:

Issa:               “Mr. Neeley, what is your title at GSA?”
Neely:            “Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.”
Issa:               “Mr. Neeley, did you attend the 2010 Western Regional Conference in Las Vegas?”
Neely:            “Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.”

Chairman Issa sent Mr. Neely to sulk in a back room, and asked him to stay there for the duration of the hearing, but Neely slipped out a rear door and ducked into an elevator, chased by reporters and camera crews. A CBS soundman was hospitalized with a head injury when he tripped over tangled wires and fell in the melee. Reporters peppered the retreating Neely with questions:

“Will you apologize?” asked Chad Pengram of Fox News. “No comment,” was Neely’s only reply.

Neely’s GSA e-mail messages, disclosed during the hearings, added powder to the fireworks. In one of them, Neely invited a few personal friends to come to Las Vegas for the conference and have a “blast” at government expense. “I know. I am bad,” Neely wrote in the message, “But Deb and I say often, ‘Why not enjoy it while we can. Ain’t gonna last forever.’”

The original agency budget for the 2010 Western Region conference was about a quarter million dollars, so the final cost was more than 229% over budget. Neely, a GSA employee since before 1980, was also responsible for a pre-conference “planning trip” to the M resort in Las Vegas with 50 agency colleagues, at a cost to taxpayers of $54,000.00, to “try on the resort for size,” according to one of Neely’s interviews with GSA Inspector General investigators looking into the scandal.

Chairman Issa questioned why it took GSA senior managers 11 months to alert the White House to the 2010 Las Vegas situation, and why they approved a $9,000.00 bonus for Neely last year despite their knowledge of the facts disclosed in the ongoing investigation.

GSA’s former administrator Martha Johnson, who resigned April 2, the same day the Inspector General report critical of the Las Vegas conference was released, also appeared at Monday’s hearing. Johnson testified she was “extremely aggrieved by the gall of a handfull of people to misuse federal tax dollars, twist contracting rules and defile the great name of the General Services Administration. … [I am] affronted by the insensitivity of the leaders to the culture they were condoning and am appalled that a handfull of people can undercut public confidence in GSA, and, indeed all of government.”

“I personally apologize to the American people for this entire situation,” Johnson went on. “As the head of the agency, I am responsible. I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.” She described the 2010 GSA Las Vegas conference as “a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers.” Most of the expenditures at the conference were not subjected to public competitive bidding.

Johnson’s replacement, acting administrator Daniel Tangherlini, announced to the committee that he has directed GSA’s chief financial officer to take direct control of the budgets of all 11 of the agency’s regional offices. Tangherlini also said he has canceled almost every GSA employee conference for the remainder of this fiscal year, and demanded repayment of the cost of parties hosted during the offending conference in hotel suites by Neely, former Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck, and Neely’s chief of staff Robert Shepard.

During Monday’s hearing, Ohio Congressman Michael Turner displayed T-shirts, commemorative coins and books specially made up at taxpayer expense for conference attendees, remarking that several of the items were made in China. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings scolded the current and former GSA witnesses: “It’s not your money, it’s the taxpayers money.”

South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy waxed biblical in his outrage. “I want indictments! … The tribes of Israel sent 12 scouts into the Promised Land before they decided to invade, and GSA had to send 50 to Las Vegas to check out a hotel? Do you not see the outrage?” Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Kelly summed up public disgust at the scandal, “As I look through this, there’s no wonder that the American people have lost faith in their government.”

Meanwhile, GSA’s Inspector General Brian Miller told the committee members he has asked the Justice Department to investigate improprieties surrounding the 2010 GSA Las Vegas conference, possibly including bribes and kickbacks.

Today another hearing into the 2010 Las Vegas confernce scandal is scheduled before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Wednesday  a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a further inquiry.

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