GSA official’s wife accompanied him on trips at taxpayer expense

April 17, 2012

The senior government executive who organized the lavish Las Vegas conference at the center of a General Services Administration spending scandal took dozens of trips for the agency. The boss’s wife accompanied him on some of them — and taxpayers picked up the tab.

Deborah Neely wasn’t always just sharing husband Jeffrey E. Neely’s hotel rooms at resorts from Las Vegas to the Pacific islands. She handled party arrangements, directed event planners to spend government money and arranged lodging for relatives on the GSA trip to Las Vegas in 2010, an unusual role revealed in transcripts of interviews that the agency’s inspector general’s office conducted with Jeffrey Neely, as well as in congressional hearings.

Her role as the “first lady of Region 9” — as an investigator called her — shows a management culture in GSA’s Pacific Rim region that not only allowed the $823,000 Las Vegas gathering for 300 people and overspending on other conferences but also openly condoned perks for managers and their family members.

Deborah Neely, reached Tuesday at the couple’s home in Mill Valley, Calif., said she is hiring an attorney and could not comment until she has legal representation. Her actions are among the alleged misconduct that Inspector General Brian Miller has asked the Justice Department to investigate, government sources said. Jeffrey Neely declined through his attorney to comment.

On Monday, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Neely, 57, did not appear at another House hearing Tuesday.

Deborah Neely, 49, does not work for the government, but she used the credentials of a manager on her husband’s staff so she could join him at a trade show, according to transcripts reviewed by The Washington Post. Taxpayers covered the $711 registration fee.

And as recently as February, when a draft of Miller’s highly critical report on the Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas was awaiting a response from GSA officials, the Neelys took a 17-day government-related trip to Hawaii, Guam and the Mariana Islands. The couple planned to celebrate her birthday on the trip.

“It’s yo birfday. . . . We gonna pawty like iz yo birfday!” Deborah Neely said in an e-mail to her husband, according to documents.

“Mr. Neely and his wife believe they were some sort of agency royalty who used taxpayer funds to bankroll their lavish lifestyle,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the oversight panel, said Monday.

The scandal widened Tuesday as GSA officials said they have placed five additional career employees on administrative leave, and lawmakers pressed current and former officials to explain why they did not move against Jeffrey Neely and other managers sooner.

Miller described a culture of excess in the government’s real estate and purchasing agency.

“Every time we turned over a stone, we found 50 more with all kinds of things crawling out,” Miller told members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In Las Vegas, the GSA paid for a mind reader, bicycles for a team-building exercise, lavish food spreads and several private parties.

A total of 13 agency leaders and managers have been fired or placed on leave or have resigned in the wake of Miller’s report.

Investigators are scrutinizing how many trips were attended by Deborah Neely or other family members and what expenses were charged to the government.

She owned a database company in Arlington when she met Jeffrey. They married in 1999 and moved in 2004 to Northern California, where he was regional buildings commissioner for the GSA’s Public Buildings Service, based in San Francisco. In 2009 he also became acting administrator.

At another conference in Las Vegas, an outside event planner hired by the GSA got special room rates at a luxury hotel for the 21-year-old daughter of an agency event planner and helped arrange her birthday party, Miller said Tuesday.

“They have it backwards,” he said. “If you have to travel, it’s permissible if a family member stays in your hotel room and you pay for that family member’s travel apart from that. . . . But to plan travel for a birthday is totally impermissible.”

The Neelys discussed the itinerary for the Pacific islands trip: “So we head to Hawaii. I’ll probably go over on Saturday Feb 4. I will work in Honolulu on Monday Feb 5. Head to Guam on Tues. Wednesday in Guam. Thursday in Saipan. Friday Feb 10 leave saipan. That gives us a couple of days each on Guam and Saipan,” Jeffrey Neely wrote to his wife in an e-mail that was read at Tuesday’s hearing.

It was unclear whether the GSA paid Deborah Neely’s travel expenses for that trip.

The couple drove to Long Beach, Calif., in 2010 for a trade show for building managers. A manager on Jeffrey Neely’s staff had to cancel at the last minute. Instead of inviting someone else on his staff to take her place, Deborah Neely did.

“You will be Sherry,” Neely wrote in an e-mail to his wife.

“So is it safe to say that at this . . . conference that Deb basically took Sherry Hutchinson’s spot?” the investigator asked him.

“I think it’s safe to say that Deb — Deb walked around the floor using Sherry Hutchinson’s tag,” Neely answered.

“We probably shouldn’t have done that,” he acknowledged to the investigator.

By the 2010 Las Vegas conference, Deborah Neely was well-known to the event planners on his staff. She told her husband on a planning mission to the M Resort Spa Casino that she liked the lip balm in the hotel gift shop.

“I just put on some chap stick from the M,” she wrote in an e-mail to her husband, according to the transcripts reviewed by The Post. “It’s great chap stick. I think GSA could private label chap stick for the event. They’re that good.”

He suggested that she approach one of his event planners with her idea. The planner wrote back that she thought they could “go to a promotion company.” The idea eventually died.

Jeffrey Neely told the investigator that his wife was trying to “influence the quality of the event” and “make things better.”

GSA officials landed special deals with the M Resort that got VIPs, including the Neelys, 2,200-square-foot loft suites at a government rate of $93 per night. The couple held a private party in theirs on the last night of the conference, then billed the government $2,700. Deborah Neely directed her husband’s event planner to buy more food, “now that we know that we have more in the budget,” the transcripts say.

“I used the standards for a cocktail party,” she e-mailed an event planner. “I think people are going to be hungry. Do you think we should have an alternative for people who can’t eat shrimp?”

Jeffrey Neely told the investigator that the party was an employee awards event.

He invited his staff to the gathering. According to the transcript reviewed by The Post, Neely said in an e-mail to a colleague: “I know I’m bad, but as Deb and I often say, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain’t going to last forever.”

The investigator told Neely that his wife’s role at the conference looked bad. “I mean, you know, it’s just I think there may be a concern of the — I don’t know, for lack of a better term, the first lady of Region 9 having all this influence on menus and chap stick,” he said.

Deborah Neely also asked the event planner to secure a suite for three nights for her niece and her husband at the government rate.

After the conference, the Neelys stayed an additional night at the M Resort. They tried to get the government rate, Miller said, but could not, even after the event planner tried to intervene.

Jeffrey Neely said the event planner led him to believe that the room cost for the couple on the extra night was covered in the base price the hotel charged for the conference, although a staffer later billed the GSA.

The $969 balance on the room tab was charged to taxpayers.

Staff writer Timothy R. Smith and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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