GSA Heads Slammed During Congressional Hearing

The House Oversight Committee grilled GSA officials over their infamous Las Vegas conference spending.

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As if there wasn't enough outrage at the more than $840,000 the General Services Administration forked over for an circus-like conference. Ohio Rep. Michael Turner pointed out Monday during a House Oversight Committee hearing that many of the trinkets guests walked away from the Las Vegas conference with weren't even made in the United States.

"This is one of those examples of spending under your leadership," Turner said firmly, holding up a vest for former GSA administrator Martha Johnson to see. "All of these items are being purchased and made in China, so we are stimulating China, not the United States."

Many of the conference's extras were outsourced, from the blackajack-themed vests adorned with the conference logo that cost more than $1,000 to a bag with the conference insignia.

Compared to past gatherings, the GSA Western Regional conference reached a historic level of excess in 2010. In 2004, the conference cost taxpayers just over $400,000. In 2006, the cost actually decreased to nearly $324,000. Even the 2008 conference, where the GSA spent double from the year before, paled in comparison to 2010 spending.

"Thank God this time what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas," Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly said.

Johnson, who resigned in light of the scandal, appeared remorseful at the hearing, apologizing for what transpired on her watch.

"I personally apologize to the American people," Johnson said. "As the head of the agency, I am responsible and deeply regret this. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment."

Not all were as cooperative.

Jeff Neely, the pacific rim's regional commissioner for GSA and the man who allegedly approved the spending, pleaded the Fifth and refused to answer questions from the committee.

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, however, read several incriminating E-mails Neely sent to friends who were not GSA employees, inviting them to the conference. "We'll get you guys a room near us, and we'll pick up the room tab," Neely wrote. "I know I am bad, but as I often say 'Why not enjoy it while you have it...Ain't going to last forever.'"

Brian Miller, the GSA's inspector general, testified that many of Neely's employees had declined to alert authorities about their boss's excessive spending earlier for fear of "being squashed like a bug."

"We had a witness that was extremely afraid," Miller says. "That witness was extremely afraid that even in her new job, she would face retaliation."

Many of the congressmen also grilled Johnson about why, even after she was aware of Neely's involvement in the scandal, she had approved a $9,000 bonus.

"There is frustration just steaming out of our ears," Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz said. "And for the President of the United States to look the American people in the eye and say 'Well, we've got a pay freeze in place,' while you're giving bonuses and going on trips is totally unacceptable."

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