The Ticket

The GSA scandal’s powerful and powerless players

The Ticket

It's getting heated on the Hill. Former and current employees of the General Services Administration (GSA) are being publicly grilled this week in repeated congressional hearings following the disclosure of a scandal involving a lavish 2010 conference for federal employees that carried an $830,000 price tag, billed to America's taxpayers.

Some of the key players in the scandal have accepted culpability, some are keeping quiet, and some we've had the pleasure of watching in the now-infamous videos created for the conference. The acting GSA administrator, Dan Tangherlini, has stated that currently 12 officials have been terminated or placed on leave in connection to the scandal.

To help you sort out the powerful—and powerless—players involved, we've created our own who's who of the scandal:

• Martha Johnson (resigned): As the administrator of the agency, Johnson held the highest GSA position and resigned April 2 when the Office of the Inspector General issued a report on its investigation of conference spending. She had served as chief of staff for the agency under President Bill Clinton; President Barack Obama appointed her administrator in April 2009 (although she wasn't confirmed for the post until February 2010). She said at Monday's House Oversight Committee hearing that she "deeply regrets" the events that occurred and denigrated the actions of GSA employees involved in the conference spending decisions. "[I am] extremely aggrieved by the gall of a handful of people," Johnson said Monday and "will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment." Members of Congress questioned why Johnson still chose to approve a bonus and an award for Jeff Neely, the conference's organizer, after being made aware of  his connection to the excessive spending and why Johnson did not take action sooner. Expect critics to continue to ask what Johnson knew when and why she didn't respond more forcefully and faster.

• Jeff Neely (administrative leave): The former Public Buildings Service regional commissioner for the administration's 9th Region is at the center of the scandal as one of the main organizers of the 2010 conference in question. Unlike some of his former colleagues, Neely has remained altogether silent since being placed on leave (along with three other regional commissioners). Neely on Monday invoked his Fifth Amendment right and remained silent during the House Oversight hearing. Previously, it was discovered that Neely had bragged about an "over the top" conference, suggested in email communications that he and others should take advantage of a lack of spending oversight, and invited non-employees, including his wife, to receive lodging and food on the taxpayers' dime. Neely is one of three officials who have been billed for the cost of an in-room party he hosted. Adding to Neely's developing public profile, photos surfaced this week of Neely and his wife enjoying a luxury suite—including a hot tub—in Las Vegas on one of several site scouting trips to find a host location for the 2010 conference.

[Related: At congressional GSA hearing, Jeff Neely targeted for scandal]

• Brian Miller: As the inspector general for the GSA, Miller directed the investigation into the conference spending. In his testimony this week, Miller openly flogged the administration and its officials, saying a culture of excessive spending, unaccountability, bullying and acceptance of skirting spending rules was potentially rampant in the administration, specifically in Region 9. Miller testified that he urged penalties for Neely as well as additional actions long before they were meted out. (Johnson contends that she was holding back until the Office of the Inspector General completed its investigation of the matter.) Miller confirmed Monday that investigations remain under way related to potential bribes and kickbacks at the agency.

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• Robert Peck (fired): Johnson fired Peck, the former commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, just before she resigned. Peck has been billed nearly $2,000 for holding a party in his suite during the conference. He testified Tuesday during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee hearing that he did not plan the conference events and as for his personal party, he was not aware taxpayers would be charged and had paid for some of the food costs out of his own pocket. He described the 2010 Las Vegas conference as an "aberration" Tuesday.

• Susan Brita: The deputy GSA administrator has been identified as the key whistle-blower in this case. Brita made a request to OIG to investigate the conference and also expressed concern to Peck regarding whether the 2010 conference was necessary. After Neely received a reprimand following the conference spending, Brita complained that the rebuke was a weak punishment for Neely. Members of Tuesday's subcommittee commended Brita for her actions.

• Dan Tangherlini: He was brought in after the scandal to serve as the acting administrator of the agency. Tangherlini previously worked for the Department of the Treasury. Since assuming his position April 2, he has enacted changes to reform the agency to "ensure nothing like this ever happens" again, including canceling 35 off-site conferences and suspending all travel unless deemed essential by management. He has also highlighted his efforts to reach out to potential whistle-blowers.

• David Foley (administrative leave): The deputy Public Buildings Service commissioner testified Monday and Tuesday that he was not involved in the conference planning, but assumed responsibility for comments (which now live on in perpetuity via the video recording at the conference) in which he poked fun at congressional oversight and the conference's price tag. Foley testified that he viewed his speech as a "comedic roast" of sorts and apologized for mocking the agency and oversight as well as for overlooking an opportunity to address the mission of the agency. "My remarks were wrong and I take full responsibility for what I said," Foley testified.

• Michael Robertson: The agency's chief of staff was challenged during Monday's hearing on what he knew about the scandal and when. Robertson, who was a former staffer for Obama, waded into a controversial situation Monday by saying he informed the White House of the wrongdoing earlier than this spring. He reportedly clarified that statement later on Monday, explaining he mentioned the OIG report only in passing.

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