GSA hearings highlight possible bribery, kickbacks at government agency


House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., expresses his dismay at the misuse of taxpayers' money by officials of the General Services Administration at a 2010 conference at a Las Vegas resort, during a hearing by the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
April 17, 2012

Inspector General Brian Miller is investigating possible bribery and kickbacks within the General Service Administration, according to his April 16 testimony in the first of four scheduled congressional hearings on the agency. Lisa Rein and Ed O’Keefe recapped the hearing:

Miller told a congressional committee scrutinizing an $823,000 Las Vegas conference that his office has asked the Justice Department to investigate “all sorts of improprieties” surrounding the 2010 event, “including bribes, including possible kickbacks.” He did not provide details.

Miller’s revelations of possible further misconduct by organizers of the four-day event, coming on the heels of a highly critical report, enraged Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The lawmakers put GSA officials on the defensive during a tense four-hour hearing, with some Republicans loudly rebuking former administrator Martha N. Johnson and her colleagues.

GOP lawmakers argued that the excessive spending proves their case for smaller government. Taxpayers picked up the tab for a mind reader, bicycles for a team-building exercise and a slew of private parties at the conference.

“There are those who believe government’s reach should be expanded,” committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in his opening statement. “What has come to light surrounding GSA’s activities should give pause to anyone who has opposed cutting government size and spending.”

But Democrats joined him in condemning the outsized tab for the conference, with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, calling it “indefensible” and “intolerable.”

“It’s not your money, it’s the taxpayers’ money,” Cummings scolded agency officials.

Johnson, speaking publicly for the first time since her abrupt resignation last week, called the biennial Western Regions Conference a “raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers.” Closing her testimony, she said, “I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.”

GSA officials received warnings that regional commissioner Jeffrey Neely’s spending was problematic, a witness revealed in the April 17 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Timothy R. Smith reported in Federal Eye:

Jeffrey Neely, the acting Region 9 commissioner, who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights during testimony Monday, was not present.

“The only way we’ll be able to see him is on a video in a hot tub,” said Rep. John Mica, chairman of the full House and Transportation Committee, noting images of Neely resting in a hot tub at a Las Vegas hotel suite.

Concerns over Neely’s travel were brought to the attention of GSA administrator Johnson last year, but that did not prevent further trips, said the agency’s deputy director Susan Brita. Johnson resigned before the Inspector General Brian Miller’s scathing report on the spending scandal.

Miller informed Brita about Neely’s excessive travel, and Brita alerted Johnson and Ruth Cox, commissioner of the Pacific Rim region.

The House subcommittee that oversees public buildings detailed trips to Atlanta, Hawaii and Napa Valley, Calif.

In March 2011, for example, Neely attended a four day off-site meeting in Napa Valley, Calif., which cost more than $40,000 for food and other non-travel related expenses, according to testimony. As recently as February, he traveled to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan.

The 2010 training conference at the center of the GSA scandal cost more than $800,000.

A decentralized GSA budget structure contributed to rampant spending within the agency’s Pacific Rim region, GSA officials told Congress.

The GSA debacle and last week’s scandal involving the Secret Service will likely exacerbate negative perceptions of federal workers. Columnist Joe Davidson dubbed this week “embarrassment week” for government employees in Tuesday’s Federal Diary:

Between probes into a General Services Administration conference, planned by one of the organizers to be “over the top,” and Secret Service agents getting caught with Colombian hookers, this is a time when all the talk about dedicated, hard-working civil servants is hard to hear, valid though it remains.

Instead, the chatter is about federal employees on the wild.

The House held an unusual Monday hearing to probe the 2010 GSA party in a casino spa hotel just outside Las Vegas. In an unrelated incident, 11 Secret Service agents have been suspended and stripped of their security clearances while the agency examines their partying as they advanced President Obama’s trip to Colombia. The Defense Department also is investigating possible misconduct by military members of the advance team.

Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, says the Secret Service probe of the Colombia incident will be professional and, “I think there is no need for any congressional committee hearings.”

Capitol Hill likely will say otherwise.

In the Republican-controlled House, the titles are “Addressing GSA’s Culture of Wasteful Spending,” for the Oversight and Government Reform session, and “GSA’s Squandering of Taxpayer Dollars: A Pattern of Mismanagement, Excess and Waste” for the Tuesday panel.

Democrats controlling the Senate used blander, more straightforward wording: “Oversight hearing on the General Services Administration” for the Wednesday morning hearing and “General Services Administration: A Review of the Recent Inspector General Management Deficiency Report and An Assessment of the Fiscal Year 2013 GSA Funding Request” for the Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Any attempt by Democrats to place the GSA scandal in the context of a big jump in agency conference spending under the Bush administration has been undercut by House Republicans. On April 6, Politico, citing a government source, reported that the costs of similar conferences jumped from $93,000 in 2004 to $323,855 in 2006, a 248 percent increase. But days later, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said the actual cost of the 2004 event was $401,024, meaning costs fell for the 2006 gathering.

Issa got it right when he said: “Wasteful spending is a problem that transcends multiple administrations and multiple Congresses, but it’s incumbent on the present administration and the current Congress to mandate a culture that prevents this type of waste and mismanagement, no matter what happened before them.”

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan also got it right when he described the culture he wants to see at his agency in a letter to staffers. “The overwhelming majority of the men and women in the Secret Service live up” to “the very highest levels of professional and ethical” standards “every moment of every day,” he said.

That could apply across the government.

But as Sullivan correctly added, “an ‘overwhelming majority’ is insufficient.”

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