The practice of gaming the system in order to bill taxpayers for food at lavish conferences was so widespread within the General Services Administration that it became a "running joke" among certain employees, the GSA inspector general testified Tuesday.
Inspector General Brian Miller, who blew the whistle on agency spending with a report on its $820,000 conference in Las Vegas, explained how leaders with the western region of GSA got around the administration's rule of not having food at conferences. The work-around was simple -- just hold an awards ceremony, and food would be provided at taxpayer expense.
"Many times in Region 9, witnesses told us that it became a running joke with the Region 9 regional commissioner that even at staff meetings he would say, 'We're going to have a meeting in another location and we're going to have food so we have to do what?' And his senior staff is said to have said, 'Give out awards,'" Miller said.
Fox News earlier reported that the GSA was creating questionable awards so employees could have free food. They even created something called a "Jackass" award.
The Region 9 commissioner Miller referred to in his testimony Tuesday before a House transportation subcommittee is Jeffrey Neely. That official did not attend Tuesday's hearing, after having invoked his right not to answer questions at a congressional hearing a day earlier.
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Officials continued to scrutinize Neely's actions on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
Miller at one point said Neely "put people down." He said one witness said that when one worker tried to raise objections about activities at the agency, "he squashed her like a bug."
As the hearings get underway, federal officials have also started the process of clawing back thousands of dollars spent by GSA officials, with the initial bill totaling $5,600.
Invoices, obtained by Fox News, were sent to three top agency officials on Friday. The largest individual bill went to Neely, who was ordered to repay taxpayers $2,717.09 for "wholly improper expenditures" at a party he threw.
While the $5,600 is just a fraction of the more than $820,000 spent at the 2010 conference, the acting administrator of the agency says he's looking to see what other funds can be recovered. And lawmakers plan to press GSA to squeeze more money back from officials involved in the 2010 trip, in addition to seeking further punishment.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said Tuesday that taxpayers deserve to be repaid for the expenses. He added: "Where crimes have been committed, people will go to jail."
Miller and Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini both made clear Monday that further punishment could be in order.
Miller said his office has recommended criminal charges, and is investigating possible bribery and kickbacks. Tangherlini said he'll work closely with Miller to comb through the "entire bill of particulars" to see how much GSA officials should repay.
In the wake of the inspector general's report, two officials have been fired and the administrator of the agency has resigned. Ten other officials have been placed on administrative leave.
Robert Peck, who was fired as commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, was among the officials who received a bill for the Las Vegas trip -- along with official Robert Shepard.
Peck, though, testified Tuesday that he was not involved in the planning of the 2010 conference, though he did attend. He called the expenses for the conference "excessive and unacceptable."
Denham threatened Tuesday to try to dismantle the agency entirely if the excessive spending continues.
"If we continue to not only see this type of spending, we will continue to audit. If we continue to see that you're not giving us the information on a bipartisan level to show us how these expenditures are happening, I am prepared to systematically pull apart GSA to the point where will make it a question to the American public on whether GSA is needed at all," Denham said.