GSA hearings prompt more media outrage

Further revelations and a key official's refusal to talk generate strong reactions.

The penitential journey that the General Services Administration started in response to an inspector general’s report about the now-regretted Western Regions Conference in 2010 resumed in April, this time with stops before several congressional committees. Former administrator Martha Johnson and several other officials continued the tour on April 16 in an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

It turned out that everybody was in trouble — even the inspector general whose report documented the overspending and violations of procurement rules that led to the conference costing more than $800,000. Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) scolded IG Brian Miller for not informing the committee long before the report was released in early April, Matthew Weigelt reported on FCW.com.

Issa told Miller that he was more than a little concerned about the apparent delay. Miller didn't exactly apologize, but he did say "I'm receiving your message" that the committee wanted to be informed earlier in the process.

In the midst of all the outrage, Politico might have gotten punked. On April 6, it published an article by Byron Tau that cited information from a government source showing that the cost of the Western Regions Conference first started to rise under the George W. Bush administration — from $93,000 in 2004 to $323,855 in 2006.

Those figures were wrong, a fact that Issa's committee revealed a few days before the hearing. As reported by Lauren Fox in U.S. News and World Report, the costs actually decreased in that period, from $401,024 in 2004 to $323,855 in 2006. Politico's story now has an editor's note at the bottom regarding the correction, but the story says the $323,855 in 2006 had risen again to $655,025 in 2008.

At the same committee hearing, Jeff Neely, one of the regional managers involved in the conference, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions. The New York Post published three photos of Neely, one of him being sworn in just before the committee hearing and two from the conference in Las Vegas, including one that showed him relaxing in a hot tub. The Post's headline described Neely's situation as a "tub of trouble," and writer Gerry Shields’ lead sentence was: "Now he's really in hot water!"

The hearings brought more revelations of wrongdoing, and Miller said he's continuing to investigate the allegations, including some involving bribery, so the story might not yet be complete. That prompted the Times-Picayune to write in an editorial that GSA should stand for Get Someone Arrested.

Neely apparently invited friends to stay at the luxury Las Vegas hotel during the conference on the government's tab, according to an e-mail message that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) read during the hearing, which the Times-Picayune described as outrageous.

The editorial noted that Johnson had approved a $9,000 bonus for Neely after the IG had briefed her on the abuses his investigation was uncovering.

"She said the decision to pay the bonus was based solely on performance and that the inspector general's probe had not been completed," the unsigned editorial concludes. "Evidently, the myopia about how to spend tax dollars at the GSA reached all the way to the top."

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