- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Chateau on the Lake in Branson, Mo., bills itself as a resort getaway with poolside attendants, a luxury spa and mountaintop tennis courts overlooking the clear waters of Table Rock Lake.

For one General Services Administration (GSA) official, the luxury apparently proved such a delight that the official stayed at the hotel, but failed to attend any of the government training sessions that were the purpose of the 2009 trip.

In the end, taxpayers picked up the bill.

The episode, gleaned from documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, is one of a handful of little-noticed internal investigations involving suspected government travel fraud at the GSA that occurred before the agency was recently hauled before Congress over a lavish Las Vegas conference featuring in-room parties, a mind reader, fancy artisan cheeses and a cash bar.

The earlier episode didn’t reach that level of extravagance, but it did prove serious enough for the GSA’s watchdog agency to launch a full investigation for more than a year into a travel-fraud allegation involving an official in the customer accounts and research office of the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service in Kansas City.

The investigation widened to include a review of companies with whom the GSA official was affiliated and the official’s relationship with “certain individuals and contractors,” records show.

Documents detailing the probe were provided to The Washington Times by the GSA’s Office of Inspector General in response to an open-records request, though officials redacted the names of the officials involved, citing privacy and other reasons.

It wasn’t the only travel-fraud case investigated by the GSA’s inspector general in recent years.

In 2010, Daniel Voll, a former deputy commissioner in the GSA’s public buildings service, was fined, sentenced to three months imprisonment and put on probation for a year after pleading guilty to theft charges stemming from more than $60,000 in bogus charges to his government-issued credit card.

Unauthorized charges

A report of investigation by the GSA’s inspector general noted that Voll’s supervisor, Jeffrey Neely, provided information showing that an internal audit of Voll’s travel and purchase card accounts included numerous unauthorized charges, including multiple hotel stays in the San Francisco area.

Now, it’s Mr. Neely who is hard-pressed to explain his own purchasing decisions.

He pleaded his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a recent appearance before Congress when asked about his role in organizing the lavish Las Vegas conference in 2010.

In an email, which was read aloud by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, at a House oversight hearing last month, Mr. Neely told friends, “… we’ll get guys a room near us, and we’ll pick up the room tab. Could be a blast.”

Asked whether he was prepared to answer questions about his role in organizing the conference, Mr. Neely declined, saying, “I respectfully decline to answer any questions here today based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.”

Court records filed in the Voll investigation include receipts for, among other charges, a couple’s massage. That and other questionable travel expenditures spanned about four years.

‘Recreation purposes’

The outcome of the Branson investigation is less clear. The highly redacted report of that probe obtained by The Times states that an official allowed a staff member to attend the Federal Executive Board retreat with his family, while another went a day early “presumably for recreation purposes.”

The investigation also probed the unnamed official’s ties to contractors, including a meeting between the official and a contractor at McCormick & Schmick’s, a high-end restaurant, according to the GSA report.

The official claimed to have never received anything of value or steered any federal contracts.

It’s unclear if the official remains with the GSA. The report states that “administrative action” had been taken, but additional details were redacted.

News of the Las Vegas conference, which also was investigated by the GSA’s inspector general, forced the ouster of GSA’s top official, Martha Johnson. The acting director, Dan Tangherlini, has pledged a host of reforms in the wake of the scandal.

Not long after taking over the agency, Mr. Tangherlini posted a video on the GSA website suggesting people read the inspector general’s report on the Las Vegas gathering, which cost about $800,000, and outlining steps to “prevent this kind of abuse from ever happening again.”

“There were violations of travel rules, acquisition rules and good conduct,” he said. “Just as importantly, those responsible violated rules of common sense, the spirit of public service and the trust that America’s taxpayers have placed in all of us.”

Asked about the Branson investigation, GSA spokesman Adam Elkington said, “These kind of actions are not consistent with how GSA conducts business.”

He said Mr. Tangherlini had initiated a “top-to-bottom review” of the agency’s operations, including a “comprehensive analysis” of its regional oversight and travel policy.

“Our agency remains committed to eliminating excessive federal spending and promoting government efficiency,” he said.

Still, Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said, “It shouldn’t take a scandal to save money.

“The steps they’re taking are common-sense practices in the private sector,” he said of various reforms.

“Anyone employed anywhere other than the federal government would never get away with this. Their first couple’s massage would be their last.”

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