A General Services Administration official refused to answer U.S. lawmakers’ questions about the planning of an $823,000 Las Vegas conference.
Jeff Neely, a regional commissioner who oversaw the event, had been scheduled to testify today before the House Oversight Committee. He cited his Fifth Amendment rights.
GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned April 2 following the inspector general’s report on the 2010 conference for agency employees. The five-day event featured a professional mind reader, a clown and a $75,000 team-building exercise that involved assembling bicycles.
Johnson apologized at today’s hearing. “I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment,” she said in her opening statement.
The agency’s deputy commissioner, David Foley, told committee members that he understands the “outrage” over the conference. “I sincerely apologize,” he said.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, questioned why Neely had been granted a bonus after the agency already was aware of the inspector general’s interim findings. Neely has been placed on administrative leave.
“He’s still being paid by the taxpayer,” Chaffetz said. “What does it take to be fired from the GSA?”
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, was the first of at least four congressional committees that have scheduled hearings this week on the GSA’s conference spending spree.
The others are the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee.
Issa has requested government-wide data about the cost and frequency of agency-funded overnight conferences and the individuals hired to plan those events.
The GSA, which manages property and purchases goods and services for other government agencies, held its gathering at the M Resort Spa Casino in Henderson, Nevada. Its outlays also included $8,130 to print “yearbooks” for participants and $6,325 for commemorative coins, according to the agency’s inspector general.
The conference included breakfasts with a price tag of $44 a person, more than triple the $12-a-person government allowance for Las Vegas, according to the report.
President Barack Obama was “outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors and disregard for taxpayer dollars,” Jacob Lew, White House chief of staff, said in an April 2 e-mailed statement. Johnson fired two senior agency officials and disciplined others before resigning, Lew said.
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