Lawmakers of both parties blast GSA for lavish spending

McClatchy NewspapersApril 16, 2012 

— House Republicans and Democrats blasted the General Services Administration on Monday for an “indefensible and intolerable pattern of misconduct,” typified by a lavish 2010 conference in Las Vegas in which the agency spent more than $800,000 on food, drink, entertainment and videos that mocked lawmakers charged with overseeing the agency.

Lawmakers vented their disdain for the GSA during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing that was as much about election-year politics as it was about an agency’s seemingly out-of-control spending. Republicans on the committee sought to equate the GSA’s freewheeling spending at the Las Vegas conference to the Obama administration’s approach to all federal spending.

Former GSA head Martha Johnson apologized for agency behavior and the Las Vegas conference that she called a “raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event.”

“I personally apologize to the American people for the entire situation,” said Johnson, who resigned earlier this month. “I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched.”

Johnson resigned earlier this month and two of her deputies were fired in the wake of a report by the GSA’s inspector general on the $823,000 conference for 300 West Coast-based employees at Las Vegas’ M Resort casino, where government funds went to renting a clown, a mind-reader, commemorative coins, and $7,000 worth of sushi.

But Johnson’s resignation and mea culpa didn’t satisfy committee members of either party, who pressed her and other current and former GSA employees on how an agency in charge of federal buildings and supplies could spend so much on the Las Vegas conference and how the GSA official who organized the conference, Jeffrey Miller, received a raise and remains on the GSA payroll on leave amid the scandal.

“Mr. Neely engaged in an indefensible and intolerable pattern of misconduct, including repeatedly violating federal procurement rules, holding lavish parties in luxury suites and allowing his wife and other nongovernment officials to participate in some of these events at taxpayers’ expense,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “Mr. Neely and his wife believe they _ they were some sort of agency royalty who used taxpayers’ funds to bankroll their lavish lifestyle. They disregarded one of the most basic tenets of government service: It’s not your money. It’s the taxpayer’s money.”

As news photographers’ cameras flashed, Neely stood with the other witnesses sworn in to testify by committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. But Neely was basically mum after his “I do.” When Issa asked questions, Neely repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

“Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privileges,” Neely said.

But other GSA officials past and present spoke and tried to explain the agency’s action — or to apologize.

David Foley, the GSA’s deputy commissioner for public building service, began his testimony by saying he was sorry to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., an oversight committee member, for poking fun at her in a video at the Las Vegas conference. In it, Foley said: “Eleanor Holmes Norton — our chairwoman on the oversight committee — called, she has a couple of questions about the proposed pay increases for executives you mentioned outside.”

“I attempted to make a joke in the context of a talent celebration that I perceived as being similar to a comedic roast,” Foley testified. “I especially want to apologize to Congresswoman Norton. I have the utmost respect for you. … I did not mean to belittle you in any way.”

Norton replied that “even members of the oversight committee can take a joke.”

“Far from belittling me, I think the joke complimented me for my oversight role,” she added.

Republicans weren’t as amused.

“The part that galls me the most is the hypocrisy of GSA not even following their own damned rules,” said freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. “You are so quick to make everyone else follow the rules and you can’t follow your own rules.”

William Douglas can be reach at wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com.

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