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House Panel Begins to Grill GSA Officials

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
From left: GSA Inspector General Brian Miller; former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson; Jeff Neely, regional commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, Pacific Rim Region; GSA Chief of Staff Michael Robertson; and David Foley, deputy commissioner of the GSA Public Buildings Service, are sworn in before Monday’s testimony.

“I asked for the investigation, and I wanted to hear the full context,” Johnson said, adding that she didn’t expect for Miller’s investigation to take so long to be finalized.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called Johnson’s explanation “outrageous.”

Under questioning by Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), Johnson apologized broadly for the Las Vegas conference but resisted saying she regretted awarding the bonus to Neely.

Chaffetz pressed Michael Robertson, the chief of staff at the GSA and an aide to President Barack Obama when he was a Senator, as to why Neely had not been fired.

Robertson said disciplinary actions had been initiated for several employees.

A statement from Dan Tangherlini, the acting director of GSA, indicated that additional employees had been disciplined, bringing to 13 the number of officials who resigned, were fired or have been placed on leave over the conference. Tangherlini, who came over this month from his position as the Treasury Department’s chief financial officer, also noted that “we have cancelled the 2012 Western Regions Conference as well as a number of other conferences that only or primarily involved staff. To date, I have cancelled 35 conferences, saving taxpayers $995,686.”

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) asked officials about gifts provided to attendees of the conference, including a blackjack dealer’s vest with a monogrammed conference logo, a participant yearbook, a coffee table book about Las Vegas personally signed by Neely and other assorted items.

Turner held up the vest, which cost taxpayers $100 each for a total of nearly $2,000, and noted that many of the items were made in China.

Many of the items have been displayed. Issa showed them on CNN earlier today in a segment that was taped during the weekend.

The hearing was the first of four this week. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) hosts a hearing Tuesday, and Senate Democrats will convene a hearing later this week.

The GSA Office of Inspector General initially revealed in an April 2 report that the agency spent about $823,000 on the October 2010 Las Vegas conference for about 300 people, along with a series of colorful expenses that drove up the cost.

After the revelation, Johnson resigned, two of her top aides were fired and four other managers were placed on leave.

According to documents obtained by Roll Call, GSA officials invented awards as an excuse to hold taxpayer-funded dinner events at conferences.

At one such event, the agency bestowed a “jackass award” on an employee, a GSA employee told the OIG, according to an interview transcript.

In the transcript, a GSA employee who attended the Las Vegas conference said officials routinely created awards to justify taxpayer reimbursement for dinner events.

Describing the award ceremonies as a “running joke,” the employee said supervisors explained that the awards were designed to justify dinner events at the conferences.

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