Taking the Fifth Over Four-Buck Shrimp

The regional General Services Administration commissioner who oversaw the infamous $823,000 Las Vegas conference with mind readers and $44 breakfast refused to answer questions before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today.

Jeff Neely, regional commissioner of the Public Buildings Service Pacific Rim Region, told the panel that, on the advice of counsel, he was asserting his Fifth Amendment rights and would not be testifying.

Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked Neely half a dozen questions ranging from what his title is to whether he attended the storied 2010 conference, and the commissioner tersely reasserted his constitutional protection against self-incrimination each time

Neely was the only of the five GSA witnesses to refuse to testify.

Martha Johnson, who resigned as GSA administrator two weeks ago as the scandal unfolded, apologized for the waste of taxpayer funds that cost her job.

“I personally apologize to the American people for the entire situation,” Johnson said in her opening statement. “As the head of the agency, I am responsible. I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment and its role in leading a vital and important part of the government of the United States of America.”

Johnson said, though, that the GSA Western Regions Conference had been “an economical, straightforward set of training sessions in the late 1990s,” when she served at the GSA during President Clinton’s term, but had become a “raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self‐congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers” by the time she returned to the agency in 2010.

Having served on President Obama’s transition team, Johnson was nominated to the chief spot shortly after he took office.

Michael Robertson, GSA chief of staff, worked as a legislative coordinator for then-Sen. Obama, left to work on the 2008 presidential campaign and also served on the president’s transition team. He gave a brief opening statement.

David E. Foley, the deputy commissioner of the GSA Public Buildings Service who joked about the lavish spending on one of the conference videos, apologized to the committee for his remarks.

“I did not intend to condone any wasteful spending,” said Foley, who was placed on administrative leave a week ago. About telling the maker of the winning conference video that he was “commissioner for a day,” “obviously that was a joke,” Foley told the panel.

“My remarks were wrong and I take full responsibility for what was said,” he added.

Foley also apologizes to Oversight member Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) for his conference quip about the representative: “Eleanor Holmes Norton, she has a couple of questions about executives that you mentioned outside. Something about going against the Obama administration’s discussion about executive pay and incentives.”

“I did not mean to belittle you or your role in any way,” he told her today.

“Even members of the Oversight Committee can take a joke,” Norton said later. “Far from belittling me, I think the joke complimented me.”

Foley claimed, though, that he thought commissioners were paying for after-hours parties at the 2010 conference, not taxpayers.

“There were things that seemed over the top but I did not believe they were being paid for with government funds,” he said.

Members particularly honed in on the testimony of Brian D. Miller, inspector general of the GSA, whose office published the April 2 report on the Las Vegas conference that touched off the furor.

“As detailed in my office’s report, in putting on the Western Regions Conference, GSA committed numerous violations of contracting regulations and policies, and of the Federal Travel Regulation,” Miller said. “This is of special concern because other federal agencies need to be able to look to GSA as a model of how to conduct their contracting and procurement efforts, and manage their travel and conference planning.”

Miller told Issa that reports from witnesses indicate that waste has been “widespread” in the GSA region and that his ongoing probe is looking into bribes and possibly kickbacks.

Issa asked if it was similar to the Minerals Management Service scandal that came to light in 2010, which included MMS employees partying with people they were tasked with overseeing, and eventually led to the agency’s breakup. “The Gulf of Mexico was filled with oil due to that agency’s ongoing failures,” Issa said.

Miller said the two scandals are shaping up to be “very similar — we are investigating those sorts of things.”

Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) asked about the reports that witnesses to the GSA abuse feared for retaliation from Neely. “This is actually shocking to the conscience,” Cummings said.

“It is a significant factor they apparently had a very hostile environment,” Miller said, adding that employees who were uncomfortable with the region’s operations were “put down and not in a gentle way.”

Particularly at issue was a hefty bonus Johnson approved for Neely last year after a review. “I gave that $9,000 bonus because I was focused on performance,” she said. When asked if she would have done so if given the chance for a do-over, Johnson replied, “I would certainly like to avoid these questions, yes.”

“When did you know you would resign?” Issa later asked Johnson.

After receiving the inspector general’s report, she said, “the thought entered my head right away: Was this something I needed to resign over?”

“There’s no wonder that the American people have lost faith in their government,” freshman Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) said. “It’s so easy to spend someone else’s money especially when you’re not held accountable.”