April 17 (Bloomberg) -- A General Services Administration official refused to answer questions at a congressional hearing into an $823,000 Las Vegas conference criticized by lawmakers and the Obama administration for wasting taxpayer money.
Jeff Neely, a regional commissioner who oversaw the event, cited his Fifth Amendment rights as he appeared yesterday before the House Oversight Committee. He is scheduled to testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today.
Brian Miller, the GSA inspector general whose report brought the matter to public attention, told the committee he has asked the Department of Justice to consider criminal charges.
Dan Tangherlini, the new acting administrator for GSA, told lawmakers he had canceled 35 GSA conferences in response to the report, “saving taxpayers $995,686.” Tangherlini said he would work closely with Miller to recover money spent at the Las Vegas conference, which included a mind reader, a clown and a $75,000 bicycle-building exercise.
Tangherlini joined the GSA from the Treasury Department on April 2 to replace GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, who resigned following the inspector general’s report on the five-day conference in 2010 for about 300 agency employees.
Johnson apologized at yesterday’s hearing. “I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment,” she said in her opening statement. She was appointed by the Obama administration and confirmed in 2010.
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 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.
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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