The first congressional hearing into the GSA’s Las Vegas conference scandal revealed investigations into possible bribes and kickbacks and that the agency is forcing two employees to pay the government for private parties they held. And, as Monday’s hearing began, GSA employees were informed that all non-essential travel was suspended.
GSA officials testified at the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform in the first of four hearings this week on Capitol Hill into the scandal over the $823,000 four-day retreat for 300 employees in 2010.
We do have other ongoing investigations, including all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, including possible kickbacks.” – Brian Miller
GSA Acting Administrator Dan Tangherini told the committee Jeffrey Neely and Bob Peck, who held after-hours parties in their suites and billed the government for them, will be required to repay the cost.
“It is important that those responsible for the abuses outlined in the IG’s report be held accountable,” Tangherlini told the committee. “We are taking aggressive action to address this issue and to ensure that such egregious actions will never occur again.”
Neely, the western regional commissioner who is now on administrative leave over his role in the 2010 conference, asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and declined to answer any questions from the committee. Tangherlini made a number of disclosures to fix the problems that created the scandal.
In addition to the removal of two senior political appointees, ten career employees have been placed on administrative leave, including five senior officials. He has cancelled 35 offsite conferences that will save the government nearly $1 million and put in place new rules on conferences.
Among the GSA officials who testified was Martha Johnson, the former administrator who resigned with the GSA issued its scathing report on April 2 about the excessive conference that failed to find the best value for its event.
“I am extremely aggrieved by the gall of a handful of people to misuse federal tax dollars, twist contracting rules and defile the great name of the General Services Administration. Further, I am affronted by the insensitivity of the leaders to the culture they were condoning and am appalled that a handful of people can undercut public confidence in GSA and, indeed, all of government,” Johnson said.
Nevertheless, it was disclosed that Johnson granted Neely a $9,000 bonus for spearheading the Las Vegas conference over the objection of Deputy Administrator Susan Brita.
Members of the committee – both Democrats and Republicans – were tough on the GSA witnesses.
“What has come to light surrounding GSA’s activities should give pause to anyone who has opposed cutting government size and spending,” said committee chairman Darrell Issa.
Rep. Elija Cummings, D-Md., the panel’s ranking member, called the situation “indefensible” and “intolerable.”
“It’s not your money, it’s the taxpayers’ money,” Cummings said as he scolded agency officials seated at a witness table, adding that he hopes at least some of the money spent might be recouped from officials involved in the scandal.
Johnson acknowledged the GSA failings:
“I personally apologize to the American people for this entire situation,” Johnson said. “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.”
Also at the hearing Monday, GSA’s IG Brian Miller told the committee that he’s investigating possible bribery and kickbacks in the agency.
“We do have other ongoing investigations, including all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, including possible kickbacks,” he said.
As the hearing began, agency employees received an email from Tangherlini suspending all travel for GSA meetings, training conferences or other events.
“From now until the end of this fiscal year,” Tangherlini said in an “all employees” memo e-mailed to employees Monday afternoon, “all travel for internal GSA meetings, training, conferences, seminars, leadership or management events, etc., whether paid for by the government or another entity is suspended” unless management deems it “essential.”
Tangherlini said that travel to “routine management meetings” will be allowed “after other options such as video teleconferencing are considered” and “may occur” if he or the deputy administrator approve.