Jeff Neely, the GSA official who organized a lavish 2010 conference for the agency, sat motionless--save for several eyebrow raises--as ranking House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings (D-M.D.) accused him, a regional commissioner, and his wife of having "used taxpayer funds to bankroll a lavish lifestyle." The grilling occurred in front of a national audience at the first of at least four hearings this week on the conference scandal.
And when it came time for Neely to apologize or defend himself, he only uttered one phrase.
"Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privileges," Neely repeatedly responded Monday to questions about the scandal, which centers around about $830,000 in taxpayer dollars that was used for a three-day employee conference in 2010, as well as on mundane questions such as his former job title.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) quickly dismissed Neely from the hearing room, once his decision to keep quiet was clear. But Neely remained the center of many discussions as the panelists and committee members hashed out the scandal details with the first panel of the afternoon.
"What does it take to be fired from the GSA?!" committee member Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), asked Michael Robertson, GSA's Chief of Staff, referring to Neely. Chaffetz noted that Neely remains currently on administrative leave, receives pay, and received a bonus and a performance award after agency officials learned of Neely's affiliation with the scandal.
Members on both sides of the aisle repeatedly asked former administrator Martha Johnson, who resigned April 2 in connection to the conference scandal, to defend why she approved a $9,000 bonus for Neely and an award after he appeared in an investigation report from the Office of the Inspector General. Johnson said the report the OIG provided to the agency was not final-- it was "an interim report"-- and therefore she did not wish to interfere with the investigation by pushing back against the bonus. Additionally, his performance review panel recommended the bonus, she said.
When pressed later Monday, Johnson did not vociferously walk back her decision to approve the bonus, but instead said she found it difficult to reevaluate the situation in hindsight.
Neely made headlines this week when photos of Neely hot-tubbing in his luxury suite with his wife (during one of the eight visits spent scouting sites for the 2010 conference site) were found on his wife's Google+ page.
Inspector General Brian Miller testified that his investigation found that Neely had created a culture of bullying in the agency. One witness was "extremely afraid" of Neely and asked that any comments on Neely remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
Members of Congress, including Issa and others, expressed outrage over many facets of the scandal Monday.
"It's no wonder the American people have lost faith in their government," Mike Kelly (R-Penn.) said. "Who the heck is the watchdog?!" Kelly, Cummings and others noted that the GSA scandal coincides with tax time-- when families across the country are being asked to write checks to the IRS amid national economic turmoil.
Issa on Monday railed against government sluggishness, asking "why did it take 11 months for this investigation... to come to light?" The OIG report on the conference spending was presented to the agency May 3, 2011, Miller testified. The final report was made public April 2, 2012. Johnson resigned that day and since then, at least eight employees total have been placed on administrative leave, fired or pushed to resign.
Johnson testified that she knew 60 days prior to her resignation what type of action she and the agency would be taking as a result of the OIG report.
Members of Congress highlighted some of the scandal's most egregious details Monday, including a $75,000 training exercise involving bicycles, $8,000 souvenir yearbooks, expensive commemorative coins, a mind-reader, after-hour parties, $44 breakfasts, food and lodging for non-GSA employees-- all of which they charged to taxpayers.
Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) asked the panel whether Neely or any other official believed the money they were spending was their own, not the taxpayers.
"We can't get into his head... but he did it because he could," Miller later testified regarding Neely's motivations.
Johnson offered a mea culpa, saying she remains "extremely aggrieved by the gall of a handful of people" and will "mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment." She blasted the conference spending as "arrogant," "raucous," "self-congratulatory" and belittling of the agency.
Johnson also made some excuses, saying that the agency she returned to in 2010 (following previous service as chief of staff of the Agency under President Bill Clinton) was deeply broken, with many empty positions, no leadership or inconsistent leadership, and issues with GSA's responsibilities.
Monday's hearing was the first of at least four hearings scheduled this week on the GSA scandal.
Partisan politics bubbled up occasionally in the first half of Monday's hearings when members questioned what the Obama administration knew when, noting that many of Monday's panelists were Obama appointees or employees.
Issa made a point at the start of the hearing to note his unsuccessful efforts under George W. Bush to reduce wasteful spending by the GSA.
It's unclear what reforms, if any, will be outlined by Congress in the wake of the scandal. The GSA has already taken some steps to reevaluate their practices including shuttering an employee awards program.
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