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Congressional Panels Probe Lavish GSA Spending


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

A conference in Las Vegas - high priced entertainment, fancy food, private parties, four-star resort suites. All of this may suggest to you the kind of corporate excesses that fell out of fashion a few years ago, but this had nothing to do with corporate excess. It was the United States government and the 2010 Vegas conference held by the General Services Administration, which cost $800,000 paid for by the taxpayers, of course. It is all the subject this week of congressional hearings. Yesterday it was the House Oversight Committee, and there is another hearing today.

NPR's Tamara Keith has more.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The General Services Administration oversees federal buildings, the vehicle fleet, and billions of dollars in contracts. And particularly relevant in this case, the GSA decides how much government employees can be reimbursed for food and mileage and hotel rooms when traveling.

And according to a scathing report from GSA Inspector General Brian Miller, in the case of this Vegas extravaganza, a handful of GSA employees violated the agency's own rules.

BRIAN MILLER: In attempting to model the entrepreneurial spirit of a private business, some in the public buildings service seem to have forgotten that they have a special responsibility to the taxpayers to spend their money wisely and economically.

KEITH: At yesterday's hearing, not a soul argued there was anything wise or economical about the October 2010 Western Regions Conference. If anything, the conference for 300 employees seemed like it was designed to blow through cash. Which led to bipartisan outrage from committee members, including Mike Kelly, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE KELLY: It's so easy to spend somebody else's money, especially when you're not held accountable. I think it's absolutely ridiculous that the American people have to sit back and watch this.

KEITH: One of the many conference expenses up for ridicule was a $75,000 team building exercise, where GSA staffers built bicycles to give to charity. According to the inspector general's report, it was not properly put out to bid, and violated other rules too.

Republican Trey Gowdy of South Carolina says it also violated something greater.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: Working for the government is a sacred trust, which you have blown. So instead of a team building exercise, you might want to investigate a trust building exercise, 'cause you have lost it.

KEITH: While several current and former GSA leaders were called to testify, the greatest ire was saved for Jeff Neely, the regional commissioner who organized the conference. Neely got a $9,000 bonus even after the conference and remains on the government payroll, though he is now on administrative leave.

Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings is the ranking member on the committee.

REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: It's not your money. It's the taxpayers' money.

KEITH: But the one man members wanted to hear from the most is the one who invoked his right not to say anything. California Republican and committee chairman Darrell Issa asked Neely several questions, all with essentially the same answer.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: Mr. Neely, are you prepared to answer any questions here today about your participation in the 2010 Western Regional Conference?

JEFF NEELY: Mr. Chairman, I respectfully decline to answer any questions here today, based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.

KEITH: The acting director of the agency - new to the job after the director resigned because of this scandal - testified that he has cancelled all future Western Regions Conferences, and 35 others. And he's demanded Neely and two others refund the government for private parties held in their hotel suites during the 2010 conference. Committee members made it clear - as far as they're concerned, this is only the beginning.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.