This item has been updated.

The man at the center of the scandal embroiling the General Services Administration declined to testify Monday at the first of three scheduled congressional hearings on why agency officials authorized more than $800,000 in spending for a Las Vegas conference.

“Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privileges,” Jeff Neely said in response to several questions about his role with GSA and whether he was involved in planning the October 2010 conference.

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voiced outrage at the spending scandal that led to the ouster of top agency officials and the at least temporary removal of several top career staffers.

Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) briefly recessed the hearing after Neely declined to testify and ordered the Neely and his attorney to a side office. When the hearing resumed, Issa said it was the first time in his congressional career that a witness had declined to testify.

Neely’s seat at the witness table remained empty for the rest of the hearing.

Issa said the panel hoped to learn why it took GSA bosses 11 months to alert the White House to the scandal and why they approved a bonus last year for Neely. “What has come to light surrounding GSA’s activities should give pause to anyone who has opposed cutting government size and spending.”

Rep. Elijah 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.

GSA officials later confirmed that the agency has sent letters to former Public Building Services director Robert Peck, Neely, and Robert Shepard, another officials in GSA’s western region, naming them as responsible for the unacceptable expenditures. Peck is slated to testify Tuesday at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on the scandal.

Before Neely invoked his Fifth Amendment right to self-incrimination, former GSA administrator Martha N. Johnson said she was “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.”

Speaking publicly for the first time on the scandal, Johnson told lawmakers that her deputy administrator first requested an investigation into the conference spending in late October 2010, just days after the conference. Johnson said she received a briefing on the preliminary findings in May 2011. She decided not to launch her own investigation “as such action would have entailed a terrific duplication of government resources.”

Johnson said she believed Miller would quickly conclude the investigation, “however, the deadline slipped repeatedly from October to November to December,” she said. Johnson said her office received a final report last month — 15 months after it was requested.

“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.”

Several lawmakers of both parties praised Johnson for requesting an investigation, firing some of her colleagues when the investigation was released and for then resigning herself. Some lawmakers also voiced frustration that federal personnel policy made it difficult to not immediately fire career GSA employees involved in the scandal, including Neely.

Republican lawmakers who attended Monday’s hearing, many of whom don’t normally attend the committee’s full hearings, dramatically expressed their outrage at the unfolding scandal, perhaps for the photographers and television cameras in the hearing room — a larger scrum than normal for oversight hearings.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) displayed T-shirts, commemorative coins and books distributed at the conference as examples of the excess. Incredulous, Turner also noted that several of the conference items were made in China.

As he berated witnesses seated before the committee, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) perhaps summed it up best: “Thank God that what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas.”

Also at Monday’s hearing, David E. Foley, a former deputy commissioner for GSA’s Public Building Service, repeatedly apologized for his comments in a video released by the panel that provided early evidence of the lavish spending and flippant attitude of agency employees and officials in attendance. But Foley stressed that he did not have direct involvement with planning for the conference.

In his testimony, Inspector General Brian D. Miller, whose office conducted the investigation, suggested that there was a glimmer of hope amid the scandal.

“The oversight system worked. My office aggressively investigated, audited, interviewed witnesses and issued a report,” he said. “No one stopped us from writing the report and making it public. Based on the final report, swift action has been taken.”

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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