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GSA manager wanted ‘over the top’ Vegas conference

The man at the center of the scandal embroiling the General Services Administration — the one who insisted that the infamous Las Vegas planning conference had to be “over the top” — was trying to supplant what previous hosts of the biennial conference had achieved.

Jeffrey E. Neely initially approved a $300,000 budget for the October 2010 conference, but later authorized spending up to about $823,000. He also traveled to Las Vegas for five of the eight agency fact-finding or “dry run” meetings held in advance of the conference in order to see whether the proposed venue would be an appropriate fit. He stayed at the M Resort Spa Casino on four of the five trips, according to information provided to congressional aides by the GSA Office of Inspector General, which published the report this week.

The GSA declined to comment Thursday on Neely, citing federal personnel privacy rules. Neely has not responded to requests for comment. His wife referred calls to their attorney, Robert DePriest, who also declined to comment.

“Under advice of counsel, we can’t really speak to you — although we’d love to, we can’t,” said a woman answering the phone at the Neely home.

Inspector General Brian D. Miller has declined to discuss the case beyond the details published in his report, but he has briefed several congressional offices on the probe.

According to congressional aides familiar with the investigation, Neely sought legal advice from an agency lawyer before approving a $75,000 “team-building” exercise for the conference that required GSA employees to build bicycles. But Neely did not ask for the legal opinion in writing because it could “become discoverable” as part of a potential investigation, the aides said.

Neely also received an unspecified performance bonus last year that was approved by Public Building Services Commissioner Robert Peck and GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, even though an agency review panel said he should not receive one.

Congressional aides said Johnson and Peck approved the bonus despite knowing about the ongoing IG investigation and a separate $200,000 program authorized by Neely that allowed agency employees to redeem reward points for taxpayer-funded gift cards and electronics, including iPods.

Friends and colleagues describe Neely as extroverted, but they say little else about the GSA regional commissioner who until recently managed more than 35 million square feet of federal office space in Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii and the Pacific territories. The 57-year-old is on administrative leave — one of several officials removed after publication of the report.

A 2005 interview with Government Executive magazine noted that Neely was an avid swimmer who once raced against Olympian Mark Spitz. He left the Army in the late 1970s and joined the federal government’s leasing and procurement agency in hopes of ultimately becoming an assistant regional administrator.

“I knew I wanted that job, and I set myself to doing that by working in lots of different places,” Neely said in the interview. “Intentionally, I got myself into lots of different pieces of PBS [the Public Buildings Service], because I knew I would need that experience.”

Despite his outlandish conference spending, GSA credited Neely last December for saving money by hiring a herd of goats — instead of bulldozers and crews — to clear outgrowth and underbrush on a hillside near a Pasadena courthouse.

Neighbors of the courthouse “were tickled and impressed with the idea” Neely said in an agency press release. “The clerk of the court watched the goats depart and said she’d be happy to see them back again — the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Staff writer Lisa Rein and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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