- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2012

The investigator who blew the whistle on the General Services Administration’s lavish $823,000 junket in Las Vegas told lawmakers Monday the scandal could go deeper, with allegations of bribery and possible kickbacks.

Inspector General Brian Miller, the GSA’s internal watchdog, told the House Oversight and Investigations Committee he is still probing the agency and has already recommended criminal charges to the Justice Department.

Lawmakers also heard from GSA officials embroiled in the scandal, including Martha Johnson, who resigned as head of the GSA when the agency’s 2010 spending spree surfaced nearly two weeks ago, and Jeffrey Neely, the conference planner who invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent before the committee.

 “I personally apologize to the American people — as the head of the agency, I am responsible,” Ms. Johnson said. “I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.”

Mr. Miller has recommended a criminal investigation into the 2010 retreat, where several hundred employees gathered at a spa and casino, and into the agency’s “scouting” trips before the conference, when officials brought along family members.

Members of the House committee especially targeted Mr. Neely, who is facing charges of misspending, violating federal contracting rules and threatening potential whistleblowers. He declined to answer any questions, invoking his right not to incriminate himself.

Lawmakers demanded Ms. Johnson explain why she granted Mr. Neely a $9,000 performance bonus last year over the objections of other officials, even though she knew the inspector general was investigating him.

“You personally were responsible for Mr. Neely’s bonus, but you were not personally responsible to look at the report?” said Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican.

Ms. Johnson said that because the report from the inspector general was preliminary, she was waiting for a final determination. “I had received the communication from the inspector general with nonconclusive results,” she said. “I wanted the full picture.”

The GSA is the support agency for the rest of the federal government, overseeing many federal buildings and setting official policies for travel, property management and many other basic areas of government operations. It also highlights best practices so agencies can learn from one another.

During the four-day conference, officials hosted lavish parties in their hotel rooms with agency funds, hired a mind-reader, paid $75,000 for a team-building exercise during which employees built bikes, and spent $8,000 on yearbooks and $6,500 on commemorative pins for participants, among other souvenirs.

Expressing outrage over the frivolous spending, lawmakers charged that the incident shows how quickly government employees spend money that is not their own.

“This is what gets the American people so worked up,” said Rep. Joe Walsh, Illinois Republican. “Eight-thousand dollars is a lot of money, $6,500 goes a very long way for most families today, and I would argue that the invisible man there, Mr. Neely, if he had thought this was his money, he wouldn’t be here today.”

South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy called for an indictment.

“My guess is they will not need a mind-reader to find out the American public has lost confidence in the institutions of government and the response,” Mr. Gowdy said. “I want an indictment. That’s a great way to get people’s attention.”

Under questioning by Mr. Issa, the inspector general said his office is investigating broader allegations of bribery and other improprieties between GSA staffers and those seeking to do business with the agency.

“We do have other ongoing investigations,” Mr. Miller said, “including all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, possibly kickbacks, but I’d have to check on, precisely, kickbacks.”

The GSA held at least eight pre-conference planning meetings — six of them in Las Vegas — that cost more than $130,000 all told, with charges including $48.80 breakfasts and $57.72 dinners. Mr. Gowdy said the taxpayers are “pouring generic brand cereal while you are eating a $48 breakfast.”

Ms. Johnson is the only official to resign so far, although four other top officials have been suspended. Complaining that Mr. Neely still receives a six-figure government salary, the lawmakers pressed the others to admit their actions were out of line.

“Absolutely, this conference was outrageous,” said GSA Chief of Staff Michael J. Robertson.