WASHINGTON -- Tempers flared and apologies were issued Monday during a congressional hearing investigating a lavish conference and what officials called a culture of wasteful spending at the General Services Administration.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee's ranking member, led the panel in grilling current and former GSA officials. Congress members questioned GSA's $823,000 conference held in Las Vegas in 2010, the lengthy investigation that followed, as well as the pay raise awarded Jeffrey Neely, a GSA executive now on leave for his key role in planning the conference.
As expected, Neely invoked his right to remain silent and refused to answer questions that included whether he was still employed by the GSA and whether he would answer anything.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) held up souvenirs from the conference, including customized blackjack dealers' vests, books on the history of Las Vegas, commemorative coins and a directory assigning attendees to play roles such as Cher, Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis and Celine Dion.
"How is it that this type of money could be laying around so that it could be used in this slush-fund manner?" Turner asked.
"Mr. Congressman, I'm just as appalled as you are by those examples of expenditures," said Martha Johnson, who had been GSA administrator since 2010 until her resignation this month over the scandal. She testified that she directed a deputy administrator to begin investigating the conference.
Johnson, who also worked at GSA during the Clinton administration, said she would "mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment." But she said that the culture of the agency had recently changed for the worse. The GSA is the landlord and procurement agent for the federal government.
"When I returned to GSA in 2010, the agency was not quite the same," Johnson said, calling the conference "a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers."
GSA Inspector General Brian Miller said the Las Vegas conference was not an anomaly. GSA's Western region held similar conferences in New Orleans, Oklahoma, and at Lake Tahoe. Miller said other regions did not regularly hold conferences.
Miller also spoke of an institutional culture in which employees feared retaliation for speaking up. Miller said it was a significant factor in misconduct going unpunished.
"They apparently had a very hostile environment when someone spoke up," Miller said. "When someone spoke up, they were, according to a witness, quote, squashed like a bug, unquote."
Issa praised Miller for his report, but asked him to explain why it took so long. Some Republicans have alleged the administration deliberately delayed the report.
"We wanted to nail down all the facts, every which way, before we put the report to print," Miller said. "I'm receiving your message that we should come to you sooner."
Issa said the committee intends to investigate conferences and "team building" activities at other agencies as well.