General Services Administration officials permitted a high-ranking employee to spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on lavish travel junkets, despite an inspector general's dire warning about the executive's pattern of waste, fraud and abuse, officials said Tuesday.
House lawmakers on Tuesday grilled GSA officials for a second day, expressing growing frustration about an expanding scandal centered around Jeff Neely, a regional commissioner with the agency in California who, virtually unsupervised, planned a multitude of exotic trips, some of which the White House knew about.
"This is a dark day not only for GSA but this is a dark day for the United States government, said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who chaired the House inquiry. "We wonder why there is so much mistrust in government."
GSA Inspector General Brian Miller warned Martha Johnson, then head of GSA, in May 2011 about Neely's pattern of inappropriate and unbridled spending, including a $823,000 Las Vegas conference for 300 GSA employees in October 2010. A month later, a GSA official informed a White House lawyer about an investigation of "fraud and wasteful spending" at GSA.
Despite those warnings, Neely received a work bonus even while under investigation and was allowed to continue traveling at taxpayer expense, often taking his wife and family with him. A missing iPod intended as a gift for GSA employees was traced to Neely's daughter.
A year after the career bureaucrat first raised suspicions about his spending, Neely took his family on a nine-day GSA-funded trip to Hawaii.
"I know. I am bad," Neely wrote to a friend. "But Deb [his wife] and I say often, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Aint going to last forever."
Late last year, GSA officials discussed the inappropriateness of Neely's planned 17-day junket to the Pacific Rim. But officials approved the trip and Neely in February set off for Hawaii, Guam and Saipan with employees and his wife, whose birthday he planned to celebrate as part of the trip.
Neely was still traveling on the taxpayer's dime as recently as last month, including a four-day trip to Hawaii and a $40,000 "executive team meeting" in the Napa Valley.
"Clearly he got to like living large on the taxpayer's dime and he wasn't going to let anyone stop him," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
But no one really tried to stop Neely. And lawmakers in the second of four hearings scheduled into GSA spending demanded to know why.
"This is a pretty scary report," Denham said of the inspector general's findings. "If you took this seriously, why did you not act? Why didn't you stop all travel?"
Johnson, who resigned as GSA administrator when the report became public April 2, acknowledged that she not only failed to stop Neely but approved his $9,000 bonus.
The GSA's top investigator will continue a probe he said could include kickbacks and bribes. Miller referred findings about Neely to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
"Every time we turned over a stone," Miller said, "we found 50 more with all kinds of things crawling out."
GSA's lone defender was D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, who represents many government workers. Norton insisted that the system worked because the fraud and abuse were uncovered and said GSA employees "are among the most dedicated."
|Neely traveled despite warnings|
|October 2010 - Three-day conference for 300 General Services Administration employees at M Resort in Las Vegas planned by Regional Commissioner Jeff Neely. Cost to taxpayers: $823,000.|
|May 2011 - GSA inspector general briefs top GSA officials on waste, fraud and abuse in agency, including the Las Vegas conference.|
|August 2011 - Neely's supervisor, Ruth Cox, is told to "get a handle on Regional Commissioner Neely's travel."|
|October 2011 - Neely and his family take a nine-day taxpayer-funded trip to Hawaii.|
|November 2011 - Neely takes five-day trip to Atlanta for a non-training conference. Neely and his wife also discussed celebrating her birthday during a 17-day junket to the South Pacific. Quoting rapper 50 Cent, she wrote in an email, "Its yo birfday .... We gonna pawty like iz yo birfday!"|
|December 2011 - Cox, Neely's supervisor, is warned that Neely's planned 17-day trip to the South Pacific is a bad idea. Cox approves it anyway.|
|February 2012 - Neely and staff travel for 17 days to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. That same month, Neely travels again to Atlanta for fives days.|
|March 2012 - Neely travels for four days to Hawaii. He later attends a four-day "Executive Team Meeting" in Napa, Calif., that cost $40,000, excluding travel costs.|
|April 2012 - Inspector general's report released. Neely placed on paid leave.|