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Lawmakers ask more questions about agency spending

An inquiry into the General Services Administration now includes possible kickbacks and bribes, the inspector general tells a congressional panel.

April 17, 2012|By Ian Duncan, Washington Bureau
  • Former General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson confers with her attorney during a congressional panel about agency spending. At right is Jeff Neely, whose conference spending has come under heavy criticism.
Former General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson confers… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

WASHINGTON — The General Services Administration's inspector general is investigating possible kickbacks and bribes in an agency already shaken by a scandal over a pricey Las Vegas-area conference, he told a congressional hearing Monday.

In response to questions from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Brian Miller said he was investigating "all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, possibly kickbacks."

"We do have other ongoing investigations," Miller said, adding that witnesses told him waste was "widespread" in the GSA's Pacific Rim region, which staged the Las Vegas-area conference for nearly $823,000 in 2010.

The official responsible for planning the conference, Jeff Neely, refused to respond to questions at the hearing, asserting his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In a report published April 2, Miller detailed the spending on the conference held at the luxury M Resort, including $6,325 on commemorative coins and $75,000 on a team-building exercise. The conference also included performances by a mind reader and a clown.

Lawmakers have latched onto the money spent on the conference as emblematic of government waste. Issa said he planned to expand the committee's investigation into spending on conferences at other government agencies.

Miller told the committee that Neely created an atmosphere of fear among his staff and bullied them into keeping quiet about how he used taxpayer money.

In his opening statement, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) quoted from an email Neely sent inviting friends to stay at the resort during the conference. Miller's report noted that Neely spent $2,700 on a party in a hotel suite.

Neely is on administrative leave and undergoing a process that could lead to his firing, but is still drawing his salary.

The GSA's former administrator, Martha Johnson, resigned when Miller issued his report. In her first public comments since the scandal broke, Johnson said she regretted the money wasted on the extravagant conference and called her public career "cherished."

"I am 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," she said.

The GSA is the government's procurement agency and property manager.

Several committee members asked why Neely had received a bonus even after Johnson learned of the conference spending.

Johnson acknowledged awarding Neely a $9,000 bonus despite knowing about Miller's preliminary findings as early as May 2011, but said she did not want to interfere with the investigation.

"I did not want to move until I had a formal, official, complete, conclusive report," she said.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) asked what GSA rules say about hiring mind readers to perform at conferences.

"I'm not familiar with direct guidelines about mind readers," Johnson replied.

Ian.duncan@latimes.com

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