J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
WASHINGTON – The main figure in a General Services Administration spending scandal took trips to Hawaii, Napa Valley and the South Pacific islands, all after the agency’s inspector general warned top officials about the excesses.
A timeline released by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday shows that GSA executive Jeffrey Neely took five trips totaling 44 days, including a 17-day trip to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan that he and his wife planned as a birthday celebration.
All came after a May 2011 briefing by Inspector General Brian Miller on his preliminary findings. While Miller was still 11 months away from publicly releasing his final report about GSA spending, he issued the early warning to stop the travel. But it did no good.
For a second consecutive day, a House committee peppered current and former GSA officials with rapid-fire questions about the spending habits of the government’s real estate agency.
The outrage once again was bipartisan and many questions were aimed more at a culture of excess in violation of government limits, rather than the taxpayer bill of about $823,000 spent on a Las Vegas conference.
Miller said he’s investigating kickbacks, bribery and other matters and already has recommended criminal prosecutions to the Justice Department.
The GSA’s top official has resigned, two top aides were fired and at least 10 people have been placed on administrative leave.
Miller 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 on trips, and an email exchange between San Francisco-based Neely and his wife last November laid out plans for turning the 17-day South Pacific trip – to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan – into a celebration.
Neely – who was placed on administrative leave – wrote his wife about the February 2012 trip: “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 is chairman of 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 nine pre-planning trips for the Las Vegas conference and visited Hawaii for nine days in October 2011 and four days in March of this year. The trip to California’s Napa Valley, also last month, took four days.
GSA interns were treated by GSA officials to a resort in Palm Springs, Calif., for five days in May 2010.
One of Neely’s Hawaii trips was for a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony, prompting the inspector general to comment, “I can’t see how anyone can condone that.”
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 nine 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.