Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform expressed outrage while peppering current and former GSA leaders with hard-hitting questions about their role in the 2010 Western Regions Conference scandal—which was the subject of a recent inspector general’s report on excessive spending—yesterday, in the first of this week’s four scheduled Congressional hearings. The four-hour session—titled “Addressing GSA’s Culture of Wasteful Spending”—featured statements and responses from GSA Inspector General Brian Miller, Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini, former Administrator Martha Johnson, Chief of Staff Michael Robertson, and Public Buildings Service (PBS) Deputy Commissioner David Foley. PBS Region 9 Regional Commissioner Jeff Neely, who has been placed on administrative leave and had been subpoenaed by the committee, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self incrimination in response to a series of questions from committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), stating repeatedly “on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer, based on my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege,” and was dismissed from the witness panel.
Miller told the committee that his office has asked the Justice Department to investigate “all sorts of improprieties” related to the conference, “including bribes, including possible kickbacks,” and added that the Justice Department could pursue civil actions against GSA employees to recoup federal funds that were spent inappropriately.
Johnson, speaking publicly for the first time since her April 2 resignation, said that a conference that began as a low-key affair in the 1990s had “evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers.” Johnson, who “personally apologize[d] to the American people for this entire situation,” faced tough questions and criticism from representatives over why she awarded Neely a $9,000 bonus at the end of 2011, despite the ongoing investigation.
Throughout the hearing’s first session, lawmakers repeatedly and loudly rebuked Johnson and her colleagues for excessive, unauthorized, and inappropriate spending on the conference and on eight pre-conference “scouting” trips. They also questioned why they were not informed about the investigation earlier.
In the hearing’s second session, Tangherlini told the committee that he has cancelled almost every GSA conference for the rest of the fiscal year and closed or suspended the agency’s awards programs, and added that the agency sent letters on April 13 to former PBS Commissioner Bob Peck, Neely, and Region 9 PBS Chief of Staff Robert Shepard asking them to repay $5,600 spent on three parties held during the conference. GSA also is seeking repayments from contractors that Tangherlini said double-billed the government. “It seems obvious that there is a disconnect between headquarters and the regions,” Tangherlini added, citing a lack of fiscal oversight and control from GSA headquarters as an explanation for how excessive spending could happen in Region 9, and said that he was in the process of centralizing financial and other authority within the agency.
The hearings continue: the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management’s hearing, titled “GSA’s Squandering of Taxpayer Dollars: A Pattern of Mismanagement, Excess and Waste,” is underway today, while two Senate hearings, by the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, will be held on Wednesday, April 18.