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2nd panel blasts GSA for parties, trips, bonuses

gsa_hearing_041612.jpg

April 16, 2012: Witnesses prepare to testify on Capitol Hill about GSA spending. The former agency commissioner Jeff Neely is third from the left. (AP)

General Services Administration witnesses came under sharp criticism from Congress for a second day on Tuesday, as lawmakers expressed outrage over junkets, bonuses and parties paid for by taxpayers.

Questioning ranged beyond the $823,000 paid for a Las Vegas conference in October 2010, to a culture of the nation's government real estate agency playing fast and loose with taxpayer money.

Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee asked about trips to the South Pacific, the Napa Valley wine country and to Las Vegas to plan for the October conference.

Inspector General Brian Miller, whose report on the Las Vegas conference touched off congressional investigations, almost seemed overwhelmed by the scope of wrongdoing.

"Every time we turned over a stone we found 50 more with all kinds of things crawling out," Miller said.

Family members often were taken along, and in an email exchange between GSA regional executive Jeffrey Neely and his wife last November, they wrote of a planned trip turning into a birthday celebration.

The 17-day trip took place last February to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. Neely — who was placed on administrative leave — wrote his wife: "Rough schedule per our conversation. Guess this'll be your birthday present?"

She responded, "Its yo birthday....We gonna pawty like iz yo birthday!"

GSA officials landed special deals with resorts that got them suites, where parties were held on the taxpayers' dime. There were missing electronic devices such as iPods purchased for prize ceremonies.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who chaired the Transportation subcommittee hearing, summed up his frustration and that of others by telling GSA witnesses the agency suffered from "this culture of fraud, waste, corruption" and possibly cover-ups and inside deals with vendors.

"This certainly is not only a dark day for GSA but a dark day for the U.S. government. We wonder why there is so much distrust in government," he said.

The host of the Las Vegas conference, Neely, invoked his right to remain silent at a hearing Monday and did not appear Tuesday in response to an invitation. His nametag was at the witness table for a time, and then was removed.

Committee members pointed out that Neely had 9 pre-planning trips for the Las Vegas conference and visited Hawaii for 9 days in October 2011 and four days last March.

Miller referred Neely's case to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation, among others. The internal watchdog said he's investigating bribery and kickbacks and already has recommended criminal charges be filed.

Miller said 115 electronic devices purchased for GSA prize ceremonies were missing, and one was traced to a daughter of Neely.

Other questions focused on why officials needed 9 so-called planning trips for the Las Vegas conference.

"In my opinion the pre-planning trips were not justified," Miller said.

A fired official testified he didn't know taxpayers would be billed $1,960 for a party in his luxury suite at a Las Vegas resort.

Robert Peck said he had paid for some food out of his own pocket and was surprised when additional food arrived — eventually paid for by taxpayers.

The agency's new leadership has demanded the amount be repaid and Peck said he would do so.

Peck was fired as Public Buildings Commissioner after the inspector general reported some $823,000 was spent at the conference in violation of agency rules. He said he didn't condone the conduct of others, but was let go because improprieties occurred on his watch.

Peck also was asked why he only approved a tepid letter to Neely for his improper travel and allowed him to receive a $9,000 bonus.

He said he acted on information he knew at the time.

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