WASHINGTON — The General Services Administration official under fire for organizing an $823,000 Las Vegas conference spent thousands on questionable travel and led his staff with unchecked power, largely because of poor agency management, according to congressional testimony Tuesday.
Jeffrey E. Neely, the acting commissioner of the GSA’s Pacific Rim region, did not appear before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s public buildings panel, chaired by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. At a congressional hearing Monday, he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.
Neely has been placed on administrative leave at the GSA, pending further investigation, including a review by the Justice Department.
Much of Tuesday’s criticism focused on Neely’s travel, including some trips that were approved by his bosses despite the ongoing investigation of the 2010 conference.
In February, accompanied by his wife, Deborah Neely, he traveled to Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands during a 17-day sojourn. In March, he attended a four-day meeting in Napa Valley, Calif., where food and other non-travel-related expenses tallied more than $40,000, according to testimony.
The GSA inspector general, Brian Miller, had alerted Deputy Administrator Susan Brita and Pacific Rim Commissioner Ruth Cox about Neely’s plans for the 17-day trip. Cox approved it anyway, Miller said.
A confusing organizational structure at the agency muddled the lines of authority, said former GSA administrator Martha N. Johnson, who resigned in the wake of Miller’s blistering report on the activities in the Pacific Rim region.The structure was so arcane, Johnson said, even she had trouble understanding what she called a “matrix.”
For 30 months, Neely maintained nearly complete autonomy, according to Miller, former Public Buildings Service commissioner Robert Peck, and lawmakers.
“The guy set up a fiefdom,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. “Not since Jack Abramoff has someone walked with such swagger.”
Quoting a Pacific Rim employee’s e-mail, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said: “The intimidation factor is pretty large.”
The employee, who was not identified, told GSA investigators that a regional director was “squashed like a bug” for questioning the conferences and travel.
“I heard there might be people who were reluctant to give him bad news,” Peck, who was fired in the scandal, said.
The House committee grilled Johnson and Peck over how Neely could have stayed in his position so long in light of the allegations. They also came under fire for approving a $9,000 bonus for Neely.
Miller first alerted top GSA officials of his interim findings in May 2011. The presentation detailed the spending at the Las Vegas conference, which included $7,000 for sushi, a clown and a mind reader.
Johnson approved Neely’s bonus and positive job review, overruling a performance review board which proposed a lower rating.
She said she could not take personnel action based on interim findings. The final report was issued in late February, she said. She did create an agency-wide position to monitor conference and travel spending and appointed a permanent commissioner for the Pacific Rim region.
Miller said, however, that Johnson could have taken action against Neely in June, when his office issued a report that detailed an employee rewards program that gave away more than $340,000 in gifts in 2009 and 2010, the bulk of Neely’s tenure as acting commissioner. The rewards program violated agency rules.
Tuesday was the second day of congressional hearings into the GSA spending scandal. Hearings will move to the Senate on Wednesday.