You knew government bureaucrats were living large when they hired a medium.
And this mind reader who helped government workers communicate with the dead was just the beginning of the scandal involving the General Services Administration’s $823,000 spending spree in Las Vegas.
There was also the $75,000 bicycle-building exercise, the clown show, 1,000 sushi rolls at $7 a pop, $6,325 spent on commemorative coins, $8,130 for souvenir books and 300 helpings of “Boursin Scalloped Potato with Barolo Wine Braised Short Ribs” at $5 each.
The official responsible for the 2010 soiree — Jeffrey Neely — said he wanted his conference to be “over the top.” By all accounts, he achieved his goal — and now the party’s over.
Neely was hauled before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Monday afternoon for the first of several congressional hearings about the GSA scandal. He listened as lawmakers and former colleagues denounced his activities — and then answered by taking the Fifth.
“Mr. Neely, what is your title at GSA?” asked Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Neely, who had demanded “theatrical talent” at his conference, got to demonstrate his own. “Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.”
“Mr. Neely, did you attend the 2010 Western Regional Conference in Las Vegas?”
“Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege,” repeated the witness.
Issa continued to press, assuring Neely “just a few more” questions, as though he were a dentist completing drilling on a patient. He finally excused the witness and asked him to “remain for the remainder of the hearing” in a back room. But Neely had no interest.
Instead, the witness slipped out a back door, and reporters and camera crews gave chase. A CBS soundman, tangled in wires, fell and was taken to a hospital with a head injury. Fox News’ Chad Pergram and other reporters followed Neely into an elevator and, ignoring his lawyer’s demands that they disperse, continued to pepper him with questions. Among them: “Will you apologize?”
“No comment” was all Neely said.
He had rather more to say when planning the conference. According to emails discussed at the hearing, Neely had offered to pay for personal friends to come have a “blast” on the government’s dime. “I know. I am bad,” he wrote. “But as Deb [his wife] and I say often, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain’t going to last forever.”
He had that right. “Well, Mr. Neely, it stops now,” thundered Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who was particularly offended that Neely’s wife, a private citizen, “ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of food at taxpayer expense.”
Committee Democrats and GSA officials portrayed Neely as a bad apple (albeit one who received a $9,000 bonus after his conference contretemps).
Meanwhile, Republicans labored to turn what happened in Vegas into an administration-wide scandal. They distributed documents with titles such as “GSA spending skyrockets under Obama administration” and GSA “convention spending soars under Democrat control.”
“As I look through this, there’s no wonder that the American people have lost faith in their government,” harrumphed Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly.
“I want indictments!” bellowed Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. With a preacher’s fervor, he compared the bureaucrats unfavorably with their biblical forbears. “The tribes of Israel sent 12 scouts into the Promised Land before they decided to invade, and GSA has to send 15 to Las Vegas to check out a hotel? Do you not see the outrage?”
This outrage was undercut by a fellow Republican, Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who argued that “there was something that was happening that was very unique” at the Las Vegas event.
Indeed, it is not every government event where the “artisanal cheese” is $19 per person and the commemorative coins cost $20 apiece. Or where they make a rap video joking about what their congressional overseers would have to say about their excess (the rapper, summoned before the committee, apologized profusely).
Why did they do this? Neely, who once boasted that he “wanted to make a statement” with his soiree, wasn’t talking. And none of his GSA colleagues wished to speak for him.
“I have no idea what Mr. Neely was thinking,” said one witness.
“I don’t know what Mr. Neely was thinking,” said another.
“I do not know what he was thinking,” said a third.
Maybe they should hire a mind reader.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is email@example.com.