The first of several planned congressional hearings concerning a General Services Administration’s costly conference saw House members grilling current and former GSA officials about the spending scandal and a key figure in the controversy cite his Fifth Amendment right six times.

M Resort, near Las Vegas
Photo courtesy M Resort
Several key officials departed the GSA after the agency was accused of wasteful spending on a 2010 conference at the M Resort near Las Vegas (pictured).

The focus of the April 16 hearing, held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was a GSA Public Buildings Service (PBS) conference in October 2010 that cost $822,000. In an inspector general’s report released on April 2, the GSA was blasted for “excessive and wasteful” spending on the event. That day, the GSA Administrator Martha Johnson dismissed PBS chief Robert Peck and another top agency official; she then resigned.

Johnson testified that she was “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 also said she was “affronted by the insensitivity of the leaders to the culture they were condoning” and was “appalled that a handful of people can undercut public confidence in GSA and, indeed all of government.” It was her decision to resign, she said, and the White House did not ask her to leave.

During his testimony, acting GSA chief Daniel Tangherlini—who took over just two weeks ago—said he has launched a “top-to-bottom” review of the agency. He also has directed the GSA’s chief financial officer to take control of the budgets for the agency’s 11 regional offices.

Afterward, Tangherlini answered several questions from a small group of reporters. He declined to say how long his agency-wide review would take. He said that none of GSA’s current or new construction projects has been cancelled or postponed.

The agency’s PBS division oversees the design and construction of courthouses, office buildings, and other federal facilities. But throughout the House committee’s hearing, which stretched for more than three hours, there was little discussion about the GSA’s construction projects or policy. Peck did not testify during the hearing.

The most dramatic part of the proceedings came near the beginning, when Jeff Neely, an acting GSA regional administrator, “took the Fifth,” declining to answer six questions from panel Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California). Issa asked Neely what his title was at the GSA and whether he is employed by the agency, among other basic questions. Neely has become a central figure in the controversy. He was in charge of the GSA’s San Francisco-based Region 9, which hosted the 2010 conference. He has been placed on administrative leave.

The hearing was just the beginning of the public airing of the GSA controversy on Capitol Hill. Next up is today’s hearing held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over public buildings.