Ex-GSA buildings chief faces tough questioning from lawmakers about scandal


Witnesses, including former GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck at far left, are sworn in on April 17 prior to testifying before a House subcommittee hearing on an excessive conference hosted by GSA officials in 2010. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Robert A. Peck, head of the General Service Administration’s public buildings commission until his April 2 dismissal, came under withering criticism Tuesday from members of a House subcommittee for allowing organizers of an $823,000 conference in Nevada to remain in their jobs and, in one case, be recommended for a raise.

Peck has defenders in the government and the Washington business community, something Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) acknowledged when she first addressed him, saying “it’s unusual for people to publicly speak well of someone who has encountered what you have, having been discharged by the president.”

But she and other members of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, Republicans and Democrats, pointedly asked why Peck did not do more than write a letter of admonition to Jeffrey E. Neely, the official responsible for the 2010 conference. Neely, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right Monday, did not attend the hearing.

Over the objections of others, Peck recommended Neely for a raise after the GSA’s inspector general had already begun investigating the 2010 conference and Peck and others at the GSA had reviewed some of the findings of overspending and contracting violations.

Chairman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) asked Peck whether he thought he had taken sufficient disciplinary action. Peck answered: “I believe it was the appropriate response at that time. The IG’s investigation was ongoing. It was under my impression, and I think it was the intent of the IG, not to take disciplinary action,” until the report was complete.

Peck later acknowledged that in retrospect, he had not done enough.

According to the inspector general, Neely took at least three more GSA-sponsored trips after the proposed raise. He went to Hawaii and Napa, Calif., and took a 17-day trip to the South Pacific with his wife which, according to e-mails obtained by the inspector general, he considered a birthday gift to her.

Peck said he had nothing to do with planning the 2010 Western Regions conference and was told that the large suite in which he stayed would cost the $99 government rate and that food served at a party in his suite would not cost the GSA anything additional because it was part of a larger conference package. The food ended up costing $1,960, which Peck has offered to reimburse to the agency.

In a letter dated April 13, the agency demanded he do so. Neely and his chief of staff, Robert Shepard, received similar letters.

Peck also said he would never have ordered coins as awards. “If I want to give someone an attaboy, I can give them a handshake or a certificate,” he said.

Norton asked whether Peck felt he had been treated fairly by President Obama. “Do you understand why the president took out the top of the agency and do you believe that was the right thing to do, the fair thing to do?” she asked.

“I understand why he did it, and as I said in my testimony it was on my watch,” Peck said. “I was brought up in a military family, I was an Army officer and I subscribe to the axiom that someone in charge of an organization is responsible for everything that organization does or fails to do.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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