A pedestrian-friendly courthouse and an understated border security complex that were built on his watch won two design awards for best new federal buildings. He motivated staff by showing off iPods and cameras they could win for good performance through a rewards program that once doled out coffee mugs and T-shirts. He called the visits to the regional offices “Neely’s road shows,” according to the transcripts.
About his staff’s agreement to pay $75,000 for a single-day bike-building exercise without seeking competitive bids, Neely told investigators that the event company was “expensive. But they are also very, very good.”
As commissioner for the agency’s Pacific Rim region, Neely controlled his budget with minimal oversight. An accounts payable employee at GSA’s Washington headquarters was the first to question the Las Vegas conference charges.
Conference travel was common among Pacific Rim staff members, from senior managers to interns. Many conferences were held at luxury hotels, a practice reflected in the buildings service’s rising travel budget, GSA budget figures show. Generous mementos were routine, and motivational speakers the norm. The las Vegas conference featured a mind reader, commemorative coins for attendees and a clown.
Most of the contracts at the Las Vegas conference — including $59,000 to an audio-visual firm, a $12,500 commission to an outside event planner — were not competed, and some were duplicated by services provided by the hotel, according to the inspector general’s report. Neely told investigators the expenses ensured the best quality.
He acknowledged that he rarely sought legal advice from government lawyers in writing because it would slow down business. He also told investigators: “You put it in writing [and] it’s discoverable for [Freedom of Information Act] purposes, or lawsuit purposes, and so on and on and on. So to be blunt, I think there is a reluctance to do that.”
GSA manages all federal property. It competes with other agencies to buy goods and services they need, overseeing $66 billion in spending every year. The agency’s strategic goals, according to its fiscal 2013 budget request, are to “take chances that other [agencies] are not positioned to take” and “be an innovation engine for the government.”
A career civil servant, Neely joined GSA in the late 1970s, rising to management roles in a number of regional outposts. He was named public buildings chief for the Pacific Rim in 2003, overseeing 35 million square feet of federal property. He became administrator in 2009, overseeing the buildings service and acquisition side.
Two months into running the Pacific Rim region, Neely began planning the Western Regions Conference for 2010. It was his turn to host. The last one, held in New Orleans in 2008, had cost more than $600,000. “Every time every region tries to raise the bar on the quality and content of the events,” he told the inspector general investigator.
He reveled in the details, authorizing $9,000 to a printing company for color-themed tags and programs with the conference agenda. “It wasn’t like just running down to Kinkos,” he said in the transcript.
Among the excesses cited by the inspector general were multiple scouting and pre-planning trips taken by the conference organizers.
Neely told the investigators that the pre-conference trip he took to the M hotel with more than 50 of his managers was “trying a resort on for size, if that makes sense.”
The cost was $54,000.